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Thirsty? Utah's water future will be mapped by input in upcoming meetings

Published: Sunday, July 7 2013 10:42 a.m. MDT

Water flows from a spring in the Snake Valley. Gov. Gary Herbert recently refused to sign a Snake Valley aquifer water-sharing agreement under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In the world of water, the catchphrase is "planning for the future," making sure there is enough to meet what demand will look like in 10, 20 or 50 years down the road.

It is clear in Utah, however, that the showdowns and controversy over water do not need to wait until some distant date in the future. The state is already awash in conflict and issues over who gets how much, if they need it, keeping it from someone else and protecting it for themselves.

"Frankly, if someone can't care about water and how it is managed, you can't get their attention on many issues," said Alan Matheson, Gov. Gary Herbert's environmental adviser, urging public involvement at upcoming meetings to solicit feedback on what key strategies are moving forward.

In March, Herbert announced a series of "listening sessions" to be held throughout the state, where input will form the foundation of white papers and recommendations to be presented at an October summit. The first one is from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday in Richfield in the exhibit hall of the Sevier County Fairgrounds.

“To succeed, this must be a collaborative process — where everyone has a voice and where all ideas are welcome,” Matheson said. “We need the general public’s help, because at the end of the day, they are a major part of the solution."

Specifically, Herbert is seeking comments or suggestions about the competition for water resources; meeting demands of the future while protecting the environment; paying for needed improvements to the existing water delivery and treatment systems; and ways to conserve water now and in the future.

Herbert's emphasis on water — during a year when the state is in a stranglehold of drought — is timely and necessary to those in the throes of the issues.

"It is hard to imagine a more important issue than water in the West, and we are reaching a crucial point here in the management of water resources that are becoming increasingly unable to meet the demands," said Steve Erickson, Utah coordinator with the Great Basin Water Network. "I think it is wise that the governor has convened a statewide discussion on it."

Water has always provided a floodgate to fighting in the West, of course, but Utah is at a juncture where the conflicts generate high political angst and the decisions that will follow have far-reaching implications for people, communities, food supply, energy development and recreation and wildlife.

Ron Thompson, manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said water can make or break a society.

"I have heard it said many times, and I believe it is true, that water is the major commodity of the 21st century," he said. "Those who plan for it will succeed. Those who don't will fail. We can't afford to fail in southwest Utah, and I don't think we can afford to fail in Utah."

Water issues that have been dominating public policy discussions and slamming decision-makers into the political hot seat over the past several years generally center on three broad categories: conflict, construction and conservation.

Conflict

There's no shortage of the wringing of hands over pressing tug-of-wars when it comes to water.

The Snake Valley aquifer that flows through a shared basin of Nevada and Utah has prompted a flurry of legal challenges, spawned multiple public hearings with the governor and brought about a slew of studies to determine how much water exists in the aquifer now and how much will be there years to come if there is pumping by Nevada.

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