Does big snowpack mean it's time for a new reservoir?

Published: Saturday, April 23 2011 12:29 a.m. MDT

Sytems operators for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, Steve Schmidt, Jason Newren and Greg Mark at one of nearly two dozen injection wells operated by the district as part of its Aquifer Storage and Recovery program. Friday, April 22, 2011.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With April precipitation at this point registering 254 percent of normal and a snowpack still left to melt, it doesn't seem like Utah is doing much to boost its standing as the second driest state in the country.

All that water has to come out of the mountains in the months to come, but is there a way to capture it for future use to boost Utah's water supplies?

Yes and no.

Utah's 26 dams and reservoirs do a pretty good job, but a lot of the "excess" water along the Wasatch Front eventually finds its way via streams and rivers to the Great Salt Lake.

Some would argue that beyond what is necessary to sustain the viability of lake-supporting industries, such as the duck clubs and the bird refuges, it seems like a waste.

Eric Millis, deputy director of the state Division of Water Resources, said it is tempting to think that in a year like this, it would be wise to have another reservoir in place to  increase the Wasatch Front's water supplies for now and into the future.

But, that's not how water development works.

"We do not build reservoirs for high water years like this," Millis said. "There was some thinking done about that issue in the 1980s" because of all the flooding that hit the state in the fall of 1982 and in 1983.

"The idea is that it would help mitigate all the flooding of the Great Salt Lake."

But because there doesn't seem to be an "average" that exists for Utah when it comes to the amount of snowpack or precipitation in any given year, Millis said water development is designed around "past history" and what would be economical and reasonable.

There's really no suitable place in Salt Lake County or even Utah County to put a reservoir, Milles said, and most reservoirs grow out of locally-driven efforts such as the construction of the M & S Reservoir near Whiterocks on tribal lands in the Uintah Basin.

The state is pushing for a new reservoir — decades down the road — to augment water supplies in the northern part of the state.

Millis said the so-called Washakie Reservoir, or something like it, would take water off the Bear River in Box Elder County to serve Cache, Box Elder, Weber, Davis and Morgan counties, as well as Salt Lake County.

The idea is to pipe the water to recipients farther south of the dam to meet anticipated population growth.

Another project on the table is the development of the Lake Powell Pipeline, which would bring 86,000 acre feet of water from Lake Powell into Kane, Washington and Iron counties.

That too, is years off, having just begun the environmental review process. Millis said construction could begin by 2016, and it would be 2020 before the pipeline is operational.

Reservoirs, too, are not without their share of environmental controversy, criticized for damaging natural waterways and swallowing critical landscapes. Since the mid-'90s, the Sierra Club and other groups have led an effort to drain Lake Powell — filled with Colorado River water — and reveal the submerged Glen Canyon.

Dams take years to build and are prohibitively expensive, aside from the environmental objections they bring.

"The challenge of course is building any surface reservoir nowadays," said Richard Bay, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. "In light of that, there are very innovative approaches that can be pursued."

One alternative method of storing water — runoff in this case — is the district's Aquifer Storage and Recovery System.

Runoff from the Duchesne and Weber rivers dumps into the Provo River and is captured by the district to be injected into deep wells that reach underground depths as far as 1,000 feet.

First tested as part of an experimental project from 1990 to 1994, the current system was built in 2000 and includes 18 injection wells that take water otherwise destined for the Great Salt Lake.

The water is first treated and then injected underground into what amounts to a natural, slow moving reservoir. Bay said tests show that unaided by man's technology, the water would take 40 to 50 years to migrate to the Jordan River.

This way, however, the water is slowly injected underground during spring runoff and remains pristine, drinking-quality water when it is drawn for use during peak demand months such as July or August.

The storage capacity is 7,000 acre feet.

Bay said such systems are not very common, and while they have expensive operating costs, the savings comes with added capacity during the summer. One website says only about 95 systems are operating in the United States, and the technology remains relatively new.

The advantage, though, is the alternative such a system offers for discretely storing quality drinking water that is readily available to customers during times of high demand.

"It's environmentally friendly and a cost-effective option," Bay said.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com Twitter: amyjoi16

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