A mountain range in Beaver County’s Pine Valley in southwestern Utah. (Photo: Great Basin Water Network)
As the battle over a planned groundwater pipeline near the Utah-Nevada border continues, conservation groups and state water officials are now clashing over the accuracy of population estimates propelling the project.
Booming population growth in southern Utah and increased drought in the region led the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District to plan a 70-mile pipeline project that would pump 15,000 acre-feet per year from aquifers in Pine Valley to Ceder City residents.
Iron County residents rely on aquifers for water, rather than a river system or reservoir, but those aquifers are quickly depleting. Now water officials for Iron County are claiming their water rights for the groundwater project in order to meet future demand.
Tribes, conservation groups, and water officials in Nevada have opposed the pipeline out of fear the project could affect connected aquifers in neighboring counties.
Tensions over population growth that Iron County water officials cite to justify the need for the roughly $260 million pipeline played out this week after an analysis published by conservation groups suggested “the water district used outdated population numbers that inflate future water needs by 46%.”
The report contends that the water district used outdated population estimates from a decade ago in projections claiming Iron County’s population will reach 154,000 people by 2070. However, updated population growth estimates from the State of Utah in 2022 found that Iron County will likely only grow to about 105,000 people by 2070 – 46% less than was projected 10 years ago.
The water district calculates future water demand by multiplying projected population by water consumption per capita, meaning a higher projected population growth would significantly increase forecasts in water demand.
On Wednesday the Great Basin Water Network, Utah Rivers Council and Iron County Water Conservatives held a press conference detailing the report’s findings, days before the project’s public comment period ends on Friday.
“The Central Iron County Water Conservancy District used faulty data to exaggerate the future need for water in Iron County by 46%,” said Zach Frankel, the Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council during the presser. “And the purpose of that was to justify this $260 million spending project.”
The water district expects construction on the pipeline to begin in 2027, if plans are approved by the Bureau of Land Management.
“I would say that their findings are inflammatory and misleading,” said Paul Monroe, the General Manager of the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, of the report.
Historically Utah’s projections for population growth in Iron County have been conservative, said Monroe. Using the state’s lower projections, when population typically outpaces estimated growth, would make planning water infrastructure difficult, he added.
“They say we should be using the new number that was updated in 2022, well, these documents had to be submitted to the federal government in 2020 under guidelines,” Monroe said. “It’s pretty difficult to use the primary report that came out last month when they are not available.”
Lower population growth estimates for Iron County detailed by the state are not a concern for the water district or their multi-million dollar project that would rely on ratepayers, said Monroe.
“It may push off the date for when we need the project another 10 years, but the bottom line is we still really need that additional water source,” Monroe said.
Iron County officials estimate water users pump about 28,000 acre-feet a year, considerably more than the 21,000 acre-feet per year that is actually available from the aquifer. Additionally, a new Utah groundwater management plan aims to limit the amount of water that can be withdrawn from aquifers to avoid dangerous depletion.
The new limits on groundwater could cause municipalities that heavily rely on groundwater, like those in Iron County, to lose about 75% of their water rights over the next 50 years.
“Phoenix, Tuson, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, all of them have a transbasin divergent. Everyone of those areas diverts water from the Colorado River and has a pipeline that they send to those communities,” Monroe said. “Each of them has a straw that they’re drawing from another area to deliver water to where the people are… and that’s what this project does.”
However, Monroe did concede some points in the report and said that the water district’s population growth projections will be updated in the project’s environmental impact review as it moves through the federal approval processes.
“It brought some things to light,” Monroe said of the report. “I don’t have an issue with adjusting and looking at that closer. I think it would be good to have a range between what GBWN found and what some of our historical growth has been.”
“But ultimately, the real story here is that the water for our current residents is going to be reduced and cut down and we don’t have the water for our current residents let alone those that want to move here.”
Conservation groups argued there is enough water in Iron County to serve ratepayers, adding that the county should propose meaningful incentives to conserve water like strategic water rate increases and penalizing water waste.
Iron County could employ targeted conservation efforts to achieve a water conservation goal of reducing use 1% per year, instead of the 0.56% goal the water district is currently employing, said Frankel, the Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council.
Much of the Southwest is in the grip of a severe multi-decade drought that has caused severe declines in groundwater resources, according to a recent report, making conservation efforts especially pressing.
Frankel compared Iron County’s annual rate of water savings to other drought-stricken communities in neighboring states, like Las Vegas, a southwest city that has managed to reduce use 2.6% per year since 2002.
“One percent per year is a really modest water conservation rate,” Frankel said. “Other communities are achieving 2%, 3%, 4% per year.”
Monroe argued that Iron County has been successful in water conservation. The county ranked fourth in Utah for least amount of water used per person and is one of only six counties that fall below the state average of 240 gallons per person, per day, according to a report by the Utah Division of Water Resources, he added.
Conflicts over water resources in Utah are also growing between counties, however. Officials in Beaver County, Utah also spoke against the groundwater pipeline that would carry about 15,000 acre-feet of water annually from aquifers in the county to Cedar City in Iron County.
“We were outnumbered politically and we finally decided to shift from the politics and look at it scientifically,” said Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney on Wednesday. “This is an interbasin water aquifer. It doesn’t just affect Beaver County, it affects the whole west desert of the state of Utah, including the Great Salt Lake and parts of Nevada.”
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