Groups allege wasteful water practices, urge audit of state agency
SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of environmental groups is calling for a legislative audit of the state Division of Water Resources, skewering the agency and its director for "non-promotion" of water conservation and lavishly pursuing costly water development projects.
The coalition, spearheaded by the Utah Rivers Council, said the state water agency is "lobbying" for large, expensive projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline to serve southern Utah rather than focusing on conservation efforts to benefit the state.
"We are decades behind sister cities and states in saving water because the state Division of Water Resources is dragging its feet," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.
Frankel's group is joined by the Sierra Club, Living Rivers and HEAL Utah in the request for the audit, citing specific concern over a statement called "Strong's Law," coined after division director Dennis Strong.
Strong was in a State Water Development Commission meeting last year when he said, "If water is conserved, something has to die."
Frankel said that statement by the Utah's top official over water resources promotes the wrong message.
"It's really disturbing. It's an important metric demonstrating how far we are as a state conserving water," he said. "Water conservation is a very viable source of water, just like snowmelt. It is downplaying the significance of water."
Strong conceded his critics like to pick at him over that phrase, but he stands by it.
"It is what I have said for a long time," he said. "If you conserve, something will die. They started to call it Strong's Law."
Strong said for every water conservation action, there is a reaction.
"Suppose you have a canal and you put that water in a pipeline. You did conserve some water, but the trees along the canal died. Some people want to make conservation a magical creation of water. If you take all the waste water we treat and turn it into water for our homes, that sounds great, but that water is no longer going to the Great Salt Lake and into supporting those wetlands," he said.
Strong added that if the Utah Rivers Council and other groups are taking issue with the division's involvement with projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline, they should take it up with the Utah Legislature that directed it to be a state water development project.
"We do that based on statute," he said. "The Legislature appropriated money for permitting and preconstruction work on the pipeline, so we are doing that."
Strong said the Bear River Development Project was authorized by Utah lawmakers as a "state water development project" in 1991, followed by the Lake Powell Pipeline Project in 2006.
But Frankel said the state is wrongly pursuing exorbitant projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline and rebuffing efforts to conserve.
He said Utah uses nearly twice the national average when it comes to gallons per capita daily use — 295 compared with 155.
Eric Klotz, the water conservation and section chief for the division, said 295 is the number from 2000 and it has since dropped to 240 statewide for both residential and secondary water use.
"You got to remember that for the most part, nobody irrigates back east," he said.
Klotz said Utah residential use, including indoors and outdoors, is 167 gallons per capita per day. When strictly indoor use is counted, it is 60 gallons per capita per day, he said.
"It is the same across the country," he said.
But the groups contend that if the state and water districts like Washington County pushed an aggressive water conservation policy, the need for projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline would fall away.
"Water conservation efforts could be implemented at a fraction of the cost," Frankel said.
Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said its gallons per capita per day water usage is 277.
"It's higher than what we want it to be, but not bad when compared to other Western areas," he said. "Washington County, with 300 growing days per year, is going to be higher than Cache County, with 90 days per year."
Thompson added he was recently in a meeting where people were praising Portland's water use at 150 gallons per capita per day.
"That is pretty good. What they don't tell you is that they get 100-plus inches of rain," he said. "If God gives you that per year, you can look pretty good."
Frankel said the groups are planning to ask residents to sign the petition and roll out other reasons the division needs auditing during the course of the summer.
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