Federal regulators have given the go-ahead for environmental studies and public comment about a proposal to build a 140-mile (225-kilometer) pipeline to draw water from the Colorado River to serve southwestern Utah communities.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday formally accepted a state application submitted last year for the Lake Powell Pipeline, which would run from the Glen Canyon Dam through parts of northwest Arizona to Sand Hollow Reservoir east of St. George, Utah.
Utah lawmakers authorized the project in 2006, and officials and consultants have estimated the cost at between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion.
Utah Division of Water Resources chief Eric Millis told the Salt Lake Tribune that the notice posted in the Federal Register represents a major milestone toward meeting future water needs in Utah's Washington and Kane counties.
"Permitting a water project is a lengthy process and this is a significant step," he said.
Water ratepayers in the areas would be expected to repay the state for costs, but critics call the proposal too expensive for the communities the pipeline would serve.
Public comment is being accepted until February.
State water resources officials have planned for FERC to be the lead agency for permits on the project. FERC officials said they are reviewing how much jurisdiction they have.
In the Tuesday notice, the commission said it may only have jurisdiction over six hydroelectric sites planned along the route, not the whole pipeline and network of pumping stations and water storage facilities.
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council and a longtime pipeline opponent, told the Tribune that if other federal agencies become involved, the pipeline could face more intense National Environmental Policy Act review.
FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller said the commission plans to produce documentation required by other agencies, such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
As proposed, the pipeline would pump water from Lake Powell about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest to a high point within the former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, according to the commission notice.
Water would then flow about 90 miles (145 kilometers) downhill through a series of six hydroelectric turbines before arriving at Sand Hollow Reservoir.