The water question: Tapping into one of Utah's biggest challenges

Published: Saturday, Dec. 13 2014 9:20 p.m. MST

Water flows down Big Cottonwood Creek in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As the snow this weekend finally begins to fall in the mountains and Utah hopes for a banner snowpack this year, water managers know one season will not douse the challenges the state faces when it comes to water.

Utah is wrestling with a multibillion-dollar problem with solutions that are rarely appealing — pipeline construction, higher water rates or restrictions on watering — but they are priorities that may emerge as the state's leaders begin to grapple with the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Consider why the experts say now is the time to be water-savvy:

• Most of Utah remains in moderate drought.

• Groundwater mining or overpumping in Utah has led to restrictions on new development.

• Some Utah cities have encountered drinking water shortages.

• There is no "new" water and the federal government has not built a new storage dam in decades.

Why the urgency? The population of Utah is expected to nearly double in the next 35 years straining both Utah's natural resources and the ability to get water to those who want it.

"I think we have often become complacent with water because it has always been there when we needed it," said Alan Matheson, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's environmental adviser. "But our recent experience with drought is awakening us to the importance of water, and the need to ensure its availability long into the future."

In the shadow of the 2012 national drought disaster that cost this country an estimated $30 billion, Herbert convened his first water summit, wrangling water policy and planning near the top of his priority list.

By then, the fickle nature of Utah's water supply had already become apparent, with carryover reservoir storage facing rapid depletion across the state and wildfires leading to watershed devastation that also threatened to cripple a power plant.

In 2013, Herbert ordered the statewide water savings target of 25 percent to be achieved 25 years ahead of schedule, moving it up to 2025 instead of 2050.

Utah was already pushing a conservation ethic with its "Slow the Flow" campaign, acknowledging early on that if 2000 consumption levels continued unabated, the state would run out of its developed water supply by 2015.

This budget year, Herbert wants the state to spend more than $12 million in new money to repair aging and safety-compromised dams, address water right disputes, inspect canals and maintain drinking water systems.

"The overall challenge we face right now is growth," Herbert said, "and the only limiting factor we have on that is water."

Planning pays off

One of the largest man-made storage reservoirs in northern Utah — Jordanelle — lifted a thirsty Salt Lake County out of the possibility of running short on drinking water during back-to-back drought years, both in 2001-2002 and in 2012-2013, said Eric Klotz, water conservation and education section chief for the Utah Division of Water Resources.

"If it hadn't been for Jordanelle, we would have been in serious trouble," he said, adding that environmental groups mounted stiff opposition to the project, which was completed in 1993.

"There were groups who did not want that built," he said.

The need for a clean, dependable water supply in the arid West is pricking the public consciousness with increasing regularity as populations surge.

Envision Utah, a public-private partnership that brings stakeholders together to plan Utah's future, released a survey in November that placed water among the top three issues of concern for Utahns, with the topic earning a place along education and air quality.

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