SALT LAKE CITY — Dennis Strong grew up building things, working alongside his father in the family construction business.
By the time he was 12, he knew he wanted to be an engineer, learning early about his passion.
At 66, he can look back at the very tangible things he's had a hand in helping to build, such as the Recapture Dam in Blanding, the evaporation pond and pumps at the Great Salt Lake, the pipelines, treatment plants and a near-endless list of water projects scattered across the state.
But after 38 years with the Utah Division of Water Resources and the last seven of those years as its chief, perhaps the single most important thing Strong has built is something that can't be seen at all — his standing as the face of Utah water policy and all it encompasses for the state.
"I feel like what I do and did here is important," said Strong, who retired Oct. 31.
Strong, a Springville native and civil engineering graduate from Brigham Young University, is being honored Monday during a 1:30 p.m. open house at the Department of Natural Resources, where people will pay tribute to arguably one of the most powerful people in the state when it comes to water policy.
As division chief, Strong was Utah's Interstate Stream Commissioner and a member of both the Bear River and Upper Colorado River commissions. He has been the governor's representative on the complex and potentially divisive issue of the Colorado River, which is shared by seven states, close to two dozen Native American tribes and another country — Mexico.
Strong has also been a pivotal player in Utah's most aggressive, largest and costliest water project — the Central Utah Water project, which involves multiple partners at the table from the U.S. Department of Interior to rural farmers and urban households.
"He has been really good to work with and sometimes that can be difficult to find in the water industry," said Reed Murray, program director for the Interior Department's Central Utah Project's Completion Office.
Richard Bay, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, has known Strong for 31 years.
Like others, he notes that many people may not know Strong outside of water circles, but they more than likely feel his touch just about everywhere — in pipelines that carry wastewater away from homes, in irrigation systems that make farm fields thrive and in culinary systems that deliver drinkable water to the tap.
"His oversight of the revolving loan fund that gives loans to water projects throughout the state has been tremendous," Bay said. While generally linked to rural communities for vital projects, the fund under Strong's direction granted the largest loan in its history to allow for the enclosure of the Provo Reservoir Canal — a project that involved enclosing 21 miles of waterway to improve public safety and decrease water loss.
Strong concedes his role has often been one relegated to the background by the public, simply by nature of what he does.
"The water infrastructure is all buried. We see dams, but for people it is someplace where they fish and where they boat. It is the nature of the beast, but water and waste water is more complex than people realize."
Strong's job has been to make sure there is enough water for Utah going into the future.
Some of those water resources for the state naturally derive from new water projects, but his job has also been to promote water conservation through such efforts as the "Slow the Flow" campaign.
He feels he has done a good job, despite some critics who would say otherwise, and points to an 18 percent reduction in per capita water use in Utah since 2000.
"Water use is going down. Can we do more? Yes," he said.
Zach Frankel, director of the Utah River Council, is one of Strong's most passionately fierce critics, spending this last summer repeatedly calling for audits of the division, lambasting Strong for what he says is a flawed water policy that favors big money projects over conservation.
"He's been a tax and spend water player and he's resisted making water users pay the real cost of water for decades," Frankel said.
Strong said Frankel and others are critical because he won't embrace a landslide shift in his point of view on water.
"They would like me to say that water is a constraint to growth and I am not going to say it. They would like me to say there is no more water for growth," he said. "We are running out of water in a real way, it's true. We are growing and the water supply is staying the same. It's like trying to add lanes to I-15 and the right of way is only so wide."
Strong says he does believe there will be a day when communities have to make hard choices about water, but he believes the decisions should be made at the local level, not by some edict penned from the desk of a state official.
"Zach and I have been talking and debating and showing up in the same places for years," he said. "I have a lot of respect for Zach, but we will always have our differences."
Since spring, Strong has devoted much of his time as one of six experts tapped by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to get feedback on Utah's water issues and begin to lay a foundation for a 50-year water strategy.
Strong, 66, stayed on with the division to help lay one of the cornerstones — the governor's water summit held last week — and says it is now time for him to leave.
"All of my life I have been rushing and hurrying and I realized I have been rushing and hurrying toward my death," he said. "I need to slow down. It is the right time to let someone else do this. The next 10 years will be extremely interesting and challenging, but there were good people ahead of me and there are good people behind me."
It seems improbable that Strong would step down at a time when water planning is so critical for the nation's second driest state and Frankel and other critics remain so loud.
"Zach and I have been debating for many, many years," he said, and then smiled. "I hope they will miss me a little bit. I hope they will find that I have been reasonable and listened to them and then I have done what I am supposed to do."
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