‘I’d Rather Import Water Than Export Children’

Moab, Utah
An unusally wet spring in the Desert Southwest. (George Rose / Getty Images)

In Outside MagazineMark Sundeen visits St. George, Utah, “the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America,” to report on the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

“The battle over the pipeline is a proxy for the debate on growth,” Sundeen writes. Some Utahns hope that the water project, which is projected to cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion, will support a growing economy and provide the next generation with opportunities for local employment. Without enough water, pipeline advocates believe that the state’s investments in education and infrastructure will go to waste.

But local activists believe Utah’s urban centers should follow examples set by desert cities like Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and Tucson, which manage to conserve water while serving far larger populations. Continued growth may also create more environmental problems than economic solutions for the next generation, especially in cities where the landscape is already naturally inhospitable.

“There is no lack of water here,” Sundeen quotes author Edward Abbey, “unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

It was easy to like Dean Cox and his tale of entrepreneurial grit. He welcomes the new growth. In the past, most local kids were forced to leave St. George—or Dixie, as it’s nicknamed—if they wanted a career. The area became a haven for retirees, the first wave arriving in the 1970s. One big achievement of this early boom, Cox told me, is the expanded new hospital. Instead of a handful of country doctors, they have a first-rate medical center with a roster of specialists. His daughter works there. “She wouldn’t be here—that job wouldn’t be here—” he said, “without the previous water projects.”

Old-timers like Cox say they have no right to shut the door behind them. He believes that the county needs the water for the next generation. “If we don’t have the pipeline, we don’t have the growth, and we can send our kids somewhere else,” he said.

Van Dam and Rutherford also dispute the line that growth makes the city more affordable for future generations. They showed me a report by a panel of university economists forecasting that, if the pipeline is built, it could raise water rates more than 500 percent. Eventually, Van Dam said, St. George will have to reckon with the fact that it’s living beyond its natural means. “They’ll keep building until you have more people here than God ever intended,” he said. “They are passing the hard decisions they should be making now onto their grandkids.”

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