St. George Council warns stalled water supply could put brakes on ‘growth economy’
Written by Mori Kessler March 11, 2022 St George News
Scott Taylor, St. George's water services director, speaks to the St. George City Council about water conservation measures being proposed for the city's revised water use ordinance, St. George, Utah, March11, 2022.
ST. GEORGE — As discussion over the city’s pending revision of its water use ordinance got underway during a St. George City Council work meeting Thursday, officials warned a depleted water supply could stall the city’s growth. Council members said the city needed to start considering the future impacts the drought may have on elements for the city’s energy use and future economy. Lake Powell elevation and electricity generation “This number is very important to us right now: 3,490,” City Manager Adam Lenhard said. “It’s the elevation at which the Glen Canyon Dam will no longer generate electricity.” The Glen Canyon Dam provides hydroelectric power to cities across the West, including St. George. There are currently 2,500 projects on the Colorado River that provide power and water to the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin states, with Glen Canyon being the largest. “Right now, another really important number is 3,525 – that is the level of Lake Powell today (Thursday),” Lenhard said. “3,490 is where electricity is no longer generated. That is a very big deal.” City officials have discussed the issue with Utah’s congressional delegation and noted that each state that relies on the Colorado River for power and water are concerned about the issue. The 3,525 elevation itself is a 35-foot buffer that allows time for response actions to help prevent Lake Powell from dropping below the needed elevation, Lenhard said. City Manager Adam Lenhard :
The drop in elevation is nonetheless expected to be temporary, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. Spring runoff is expected to help refill the reservoir somewhat. The Bureau and related parties are working on additional measures to help keep Lake Powell from dropping below viable power-generation levels. “Most estimates are, that by August, we will drop below the level where Glen Canyon Dam is no longer capable of generating electricity,” Lenhard said, adding that discussions with the congressional delegation have included a suggestion for Congress to provide a financial offset for the cost of looking for and procuring new power sources. “We’ll have to go out into the market. We’ve got to buy wherever we find that electricity,” he said. Though power generated from Glen Canyon Dam is only one part of the city’s overall power portfolio and the city does have access to other sources of power that staff can negotiate decent prices for, Lenhard said. Still, the state of Lake Powell’s ability to produce power is something city officials still need to be aware of, he said. “It is a big concern,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we won’t have electricity. It just means we’ll probably have to go out and supplement our existing contracts and make sure that we’re covered throughout the summer.” St. George News was unable to confirm what percentage of power the Glen Canyon Dam and related projects supply to St. George by publication time.
Transition away from a growth economy? As the water talk continued, it was mentioned that water rights to the Virgin River Basin have all been allocated. If a city wants more water rights, it’ll have to find ways to acquire those rights from the current holder. However, just because someone has the rights to a large amount of water may not matter if the yield of water flowing through the basin is depleted. “We can’t use water that’s not there,” Scott Taylor, the city’s water service director, told St. George News following the council meeting. “Some years, we’re not going to get our full allotment.” While city officials hope to hold off major water issues through what Taylor called “aggressive conservation measures,” it was also acknowledged in the council meeting that a lack of available water would eventually curtail growth. That growth, both Councilmen Gregg McArthur and Jimmie Hughes noted, is what the local economy is heavily based on. At some point, we will no longer be a growth economy “At some point, we will no longer be a growth economy,” Hughes said. “When do we start planning for that?” Hughes also said projections of future water supply from the Washington County Water Conservancy District included water from the Lake Powell Pipeline. That project, which would bring an estimated 86,000 acre feet of Colorado River water to Washington County annually, isn’t looking as close to reality as it once was, he said. St. George needs to prepare for the possibility they can’t rely on the pipeline project moving forward anytime soon, Hughes said. “We have to convert from a growth economy to something else that remains viable,” McArthur said. Fostering the development of places like Tech Ridge within St. George is seen as one of the ways the city is diversifying its economic base moving into the future, McArthur noted. He asked what else needs to be done to keep that growth going, and when will the city start planning for it? “We have to start those plans now,” he said. Ongoing ordinance revision Part of what the city is doing now to prepare for the future is reviewing and revising its water-use ordinance . This is a process that began soon after the local county and municipal officials met at a water summit held by the Washington County Water Conservancy District last November. Discussion about proposed water conservation measures towns and cities could employ was the topic of the day. These measures have since been debated and reviewed by municipalities in a countywide effort to create something approaching a uniform approach to water conservation. So far, Santa Clara is the only city that has passed a revised water use ordinance . St. George City staff are meeting once a week to discuss the water use and conservation revisions, Taylor said. This process will soon include discussions with car washes and homeowner associations, as well as a general input from the public. Taylor said he hopes to have a revised water use ordinance available for the council to approve by the start of August.