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

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

Because Herbert refused to sign a water-sharing agreement panned by Utah's Snake Valley residents and others, the state may very well find itself in court because of Nevada's need to shore up its own water supplies.

The Lake Powell Pipeline, proposed to ferry water to Kane and Washington counties, has raised the ire of opponents who say it is a costly boondoggle at $1 billion, and the proposed Narrows Dam at $32 million has raised similar concerns among critics who reject the Sanpete County project. Proponents say both are necessary for their communities to survive.

SkiLink, a gondola that would connect Canyons and Solitude ski resorts, has a bull's-eye painted on it for its purported threats to the Wasatch Canyons watershed, fiercely guarded by Salt Lake City for its supply of pristine water to Salt Lake Valley residents.

When any energy project is proposed for development in Utah, environmental critics often seek to kill it by using its nexus with water — either the project uses too much or it has the potential to sully groundwater or the rivers and streams nearby.

The nuclear power plant planned for Emery County is under fire in part because it will tap into water from the Colorado River system that critics say can ill afford to give up 56,000 square feet.

"The fight over water ends up reaching out and delaying projects that are important to rural Utah," said Mark Ward, senior policy analyst with the Utah Association of Counties. "It is complicated by the fact that we have had a number of years of drought or near drought that is forcing us to take a hard look at how much water can be developed."

Construction

Construction demands when it comes to fixing or replacing aging infrastructure such as pipelines, water treatment facility upgrades, canals and dams constitute a financial sucker punch in Utah that will be felt not only by the Utah Legislature, but by consumers who should be prepared to pull out their wallets.

Water quality regulators say fixing sewer systems or making improvements to culinary water delivery networks is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem, until boiling orders are put into place or sewer pipes are clogged.

"It is a lot sexier to put in a new park and a lot easier for a mayor to let the one in office afterward deal with the fallout of ratepayer increases," said Walt Baker, director of the state Division of Water Quality.

The price of delay, however, can lead to systemwide failures that leave towns and other water suppliers begging for help.

The fixes are not always about drinking water, however.

Nutrient pollution that can render recreation-prized waterways algae-ridden and devoid of fish pose a $1.2 bilion potential fix to Utah, as the Environmental Protection Agency directs states to get a handle on the problem before it steps in with even costlier mandates.

At a moderate approach to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen levels in Utah's waterways, the solution endorsed by the Division of Water Quality, the cost would be $450 million over 20 years and result in about a $3.50 per month increase to each system connection.

Baker said these are tough choices that need to be on everyone's radar.

"We believe it is the most severe issue facing water quality since the Clean Water Act was passed in the '70s," he said.

Conservation

Conservation of water resources means many things to many people. Making the best use of water to preserve prime recreational opportunities and to support a diverse and healthy ecosystem for Utah's wildlife is high on the list of sportsmen's groups and outdoor recreationists. The industry infused Utah with nearly $6 billion, and Herbert has said Utah's outdoor mecca is critically linked to its future.

Even now, problems in Utah waterways are proving costly. Since 2007, when the problem was first detected by state wildlife officers, eradicating the invasive mussels that cling to boats and docks has cost upward of $12 million.

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