The water question: Tapping into one of Utah's biggest challenges
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.
But solving the problem while maintaining Utah's natural landscape will prove challenging.
• $20 billion has been identified by state water resource and water quality managers as the cost to replace, repair or otherwise address aging municipal, industrial and agricultural water delivery systems or to build new systems over the next 20 years.
• State water quality officials say excess nutrient pollution caused in large measure by wastewater discharge and agricultural practices is a $1.2 billion problem that will require costly upgrades to treatment plants — and price hikes on monthly sewer bills.
• Two key water supply projects for the state — the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Development plan — have a combined price tag of $2.5 billion.
• An effort by the Utah state engineer to inventory water rights in the Salt Lake and Utah counties area will take more than a century unless lawmakers are willing to allocate more resources to the project.
"Water is absolutely critical to our future and the public recognizes that," Matheson said. "As we continue to develop our public policy into the future, water has to be a key consideration."
Critics, however, say the state needs to be doing more to conserve water, and it needs to be more aggressive in reining in wasteful water practices.
Groups like the Utah Rivers Council say the state water agency is wrongly pursuing big-ticket water development projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline when conservation and a change in water pricing would ensure adequate water supplies in the future.
A legislative audit examining the projections being used to push for big development projects like the pipeline is slated to be finished early next year, while another audit on the water supply requirements for cities will be released Thursday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.
Herbert, for his part, wants the state to spend $100,000 on a water rate study — saying it may be time to adjust how water is priced in Utah.
Eric Millis, the director of Utah's water resources division, stands by the need for the projects, and says the state's conservation outreach has been effective.
"We have always said that conservation is the first effort in our strategy," he said. "We promote conservation very hard; the state's citizens have responded well."
Zach Frankel, head of the Utah Rivers Council, said even greater water savings could be achieved if water rates were not subsidized by property taxes and if consumers paid for the true cost of water.
Utah’s unique practice of collecting property taxes for water explains why Utah’s cities have America’s cheapest municipal water rates and why those cheap rates equate to high and wasteful use of a precious resource, Frankel said.
Matheson conceded that as 40 of the state's top water policy experts continue to meet over the next several months to craft long-term planning strategies, no policy shift is off the table, including pricing.
"There are no sacred cows," he said.
It's tough work, and Matheson said members of the group are striving to arrive at consensus and a list of recommendations by next spring.
"In general, if you think about what water means to us, it is not only critical for health and life it is also the lubricant of our economy, both in terms of having healthy communities and healthy businesses and also for our tourism and recreation economy."
The climate question
A 2014 report by The Nature Conservancy said one in four of the world's largest cities — representing more than 800 million people — is water-stressed, and many more are plagued by water quality problems.
In Utah, Millis said he does not believe the most urgent threat to the state's water landscape is aging infrastructure or a problem that can necessarily be cured with money. He said the biggest problem is climate change.
"I think there are a lot of challenges, but this drought that has gone on for 15 years, how is this going to turn out?"
Both Millis and Klotz concede there are not a lot of fixes that man can immediately throw at a fickle and changing climate.
"We are going to get warmer, and most of our precipitation will come as rain, not snow, and that stresses the need for additional storage be that below ground (in aquifers) or above," Klotz said.
The availability of water — or rather the lack of it — has already stalled growth in some Utah areas.
Overpumping of groundwater in Iron County's Enoch dropped the water table by 114 feet, derailing a planned subdivision and leaving only boarded up homes in its place.
The state invoked a groundwater management plan as a result of the depletion of the aquifer, which left an earthen fissure about 8 miles long, much like an earthquake fault.
This summer, in the midst of one of the worst droughts in Washington County, the state engineer ordered a "call" of the Virgin River's tributaries, the first time the office has acted to cut off junior water right holders on the streams that feed into the river.
In Pleasant View a year ago, the city invoked a six-month moratorium on any new development that was not already approved for fear there would be no water available.
"We had enough to accommodate what was already connected or to be connected, but we did not have enough to accommodate more than that," said City Administrator Melinda Greenwood.
She said it was back-to-back dry years that challenged the city's groundwater supplies.
"We've known for a while that we needed to drill a new well to accommodate growth. About a year ago we discovered that we were worse off than we thought I think on some level it did catch us off guard."
The city worked to acquire land and drill a new well at a cost of $1.6 million. It is expected to be online next year.
"The hardest part was trying to get people to understand the situation and help them to not panic, to help them understand that, 'No, you are not going to turn on your faucet and not have water," she said. "You will have water."
Greenwood said the experience was a wake up call for the city, which moved to enact an ordinance that requires developers to prove they have an adequate water supply and stormwater capacity before any application to build gets approved.
The city has also become more recalcitrant to approve any high-density development as it seeks to ensure adequate recharge of its aquifers going into the future and goes after residents who use culinary water for landscaping when secondary supplies end for the season.
"As we looked at all our numbers, you would think our highest usage months would be in July and August, but it is October, when secondary water gets turned off and people still want green grass," Greenwood said.
At envisionutah.org, residents have a chance to carve out various mock scenarios for Your Utah Your Future that include policy choices on water, air quality, housing, and more.
Matheson said the idea is to engage the public in the process of planning for the population growth and detail how tough some decisions may turn out to be.
Both Klotz and Millis believe the issue of water has been relegated to the background for years, but that is changing.
"I think there are a lot of things to be done, and I think there is some real urgency," Millis said.
Added Klotz: "For a long time water was really never a second thought. Through all of our growth it has worked. Every time someone builds a house and moves in, they turn on the tap and lo and behold it works. But when you drove to that house, you were stuck in traffic and you are pounding on the steering wheel. All of a sudden transportation becomes the issue."
Water scarcity is already driving tough choices in neighboring states, and Matheson warned that Utah does not want to fall the way of Colorado or Texas, where drinking water shortages are leading authorities to convert wastewater to meet people's needs.
"In a very real sense, the future of Utah is tied to water," he said. "If we are going to succeed as a state, we need thoughtful plans in place to make sure that we maintain water supplies for our projected growth and to protect our natural environment. And that involves tough decisions and tradeoffs. We have no choice but to do that, and do that well."
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