Scott Taylor, Director of Water Services for St. George, speaks to St. George City Council about proposed water conservation measures for the city’s revised water use ordinance, St. George, Utah, March 11, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler. St. George’s News
ST. GEORGE- As discussion of the city’s ongoing review of its water use ordinance began at a St. George City Council business meeting on Thursday, officials warned that a supply of depleted water could stunt the city’s growth.
Council members said the city needs to start looking at the future impacts the drought may have on elements of the city’s energy use and future economy.
Lake Powell elevation and power generation
“That number is very important to us right now: 3,490,” City Manager Adam Lenhard said. “This is the altitude at which the Glen Canyon Dam will no longer produce electricity.”
The Glen Canyon Dam provides hydroelectric power to western towns, including St. George.
There are currently 2,500 projects on the Colorado River that provide power and water to states in the upper and lower Colorado River Basin, Glen Canyon being the largest.
“Right now, another very important number is 3,525 – that’s the level of Lake Powell today (Thursday),” Lenhard said. “3490 is where electricity is no longer produced. It is a very big problem.
City officials discussed the issue with the Utah congressional delegation and noted that every state that relies on the Colorado River for electricity and water is concerned about the issue.
The 3,525 elevation itself is a 35-foot buffer zone that allows time for response actions to help prevent Lake Powell from dropping below the necessary elevation, Lenhard said.
The drop in altitude, however, should be temporary, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. Spring runoff should help fill the reservoir somewhat. The Bureau and related parties are working on additional measures to help prevent Lake Powell from falling below sustainable power generation levels.
“Most estimates are that by August we will fall below the level where the Glen Canyon Dam is no longer capable of generating electricity,” Lenhard said, adding that discussions with the congressional delegation included a suggestion for Congress to provide financial compensation for the cost of researching and acquiring new energy sources.
“We will have to go to the market. We have to buy wherever we find this electricity,” he said.
Although the electricity generated by the Glen Canyon Dam is only part of the city’s overall energy portfolio and the city has access to other energy sources for which staff can negotiate decent prices, a said Lenhard. Still, the state of Lake Powell’s ability to generate electricity is something city officials still need to be aware of, he said.
“It’s a big concern,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have electricity. It just means we’ll probably have to go out and top up our existing contracts and make sure we’re covered through the summer.
St. George News was unable to confirm the percentage of electricity that Glen Canyon Dam and related projects supply St. George at the time of publication.
Getting out of a growth economy?
As the water discussion continued, it was mentioned that the water rights over the Virgin River Basin had all been allocated. If a city wants more water rights, it will have to find ways to acquire those rights from the current holder. However, the mere fact that someone is entitled to a large amount of water may not matter if the flow of water flowing into the basin is exhausted.
“We can’t use the water that’s not there,” Scott Taylor, the city’s water utility manager, told St. George News after the council meeting. “Some years we won’t get our full allocation.”
While city officials hope to stave off major water issues through what Taylor called “aggressive conservation measures,” it was also recognized at the council meeting that a lack of available water would eventually by slowing down growth. That growth, noted city councilors Gregg McArthur and Jimmie Hughes, is what the local economy relies heavily on.
“At some point, we will no longer be a growth economy“, said Hughes. “When do we start planning this?
Hughes also said the Washington County Water Conservation District’s future water supply projections include water from the Lake Powell pipeline. That project, which would bring about 86,000 acres of Colorado River water to Washington County each year, doesn’t seem as close to reality as it once was, he said.
St. George needs to prepare for the possibility of not being able to count on the pipeline project moving forward anytime soon, Hughes said.
“We need to move from a growth economy to something else that remains viable,” McArthur said.
Fostering the development of places like Tech Ridge in St. George is seen as one of the ways the city is diversifying its economic base for the future, McArthur noted. He asked what else needs to be done to sustain this growth and when will the city start planning for this?
“We have to start those plans now,” he said.
Revision of the current order
Part of what the city is doing now to prepare for the future is reviewing and revising its water use ammunition. It’s a process that began shortly after local county and city officials met at a water summit hosted by the Washington County Water Conservancy District last November. Discussion of proposed water conservation measures that cities and towns could use was the topic of the day.
These measures have since been debated and reviewed by municipalities as part of a county-wide effort to create something approaching a uniform approach to water conservation. So far, Santa Clara is the only city to pass revised water use regulations.
City of St. George staff meet once a week to discuss water use and conservation reviews, Taylor said. This process will soon include discussions with car washes and owner associations, as well as general public input.
Taylor said he hopes to have a revised water use ordinance available for council approval by early August.
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