Dennis Strong, Utah's face of all things water, steps down after 38 years

Published: Sunday, Nov. 3 2013 4:30 p.m. MST

Dennis Strong, head of Utah's Division of Water Resources, talks about his retirement and working for the Utah Department of Natural Resources for 38 years in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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.

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