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

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 11:33 p.m. MDT

Water flows from a spring in the Snake Valley. Gov. Gary Herbert recently refused to sign a Snake Valley aquifer water-sharing agreement under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Water flows from a spring in the Snake Valley. Gov. Gary Herbert recently refused to sign a Snake Valley aquifer water-sharing agreement under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — In the world of water, the catchphrase is "planning for the future," making sure there is enough to meet what demand will look like in 10, 20 or 50 years down the road.

It is clear in Utah, however, that the showdowns and controversy over water do not need to wait until some distant date in the future. The state is already awash in conflict and issues over who gets how much, if they need it, keeping it from someone else and protecting it for themselves.

"Frankly, if someone can't care about water and how it is managed, you can't get their attention on many issues," said Alan Matheson, Gov. Gary Herbert's environmental adviser, urging public involvement at upcoming meetings to solicit feedback on what key strategies are moving forward.

In March, Herbert announced a series of "listening sessions" to be held throughout the state, where input will form the foundation of white papers and recommendations to be presented at an October summit. The first one is from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday in Richfield in the exhibit hall of the Sevier County Fairgrounds.

Water flows from a spring in the Snake Valley. Gov. Gary Herbert recently refused to sign a Snake Valley aquifer water-sharing agreement under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Water flows from a spring in the Snake Valley. Gov. Gary Herbert recently refused to sign a Snake Valley aquifer water-sharing agreement under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

“To succeed, this must be a collaborative process — where everyone has a voice and where all ideas are welcome,” Matheson said. “We need the general public’s help, because at the end of the day, they are a major part of the solution."

Specifically, Herbert is seeking comments or suggestions about the competition for water resources; meeting demands of the future while protecting the environment; paying for needed improvements to the existing water delivery and treatment systems; and ways to conserve water now and in the future.

Herbert's emphasis on water — during a year when the state is in a stranglehold of drought — is timely and necessary to those in the throes of the issues.

"It is hard to imagine a more important issue than water in the West, and we are reaching a crucial point here in the management of water resources that are becoming increasingly unable to meet the demands," said Steve Erickson, Utah coordinator with the Great Basin Water Network. "I think it is wise that the governor has convened a statewide discussion on it."

Water has always provided a floodgate to fighting in the West, of course, but Utah is at a juncture where the conflicts generate high political angst and the decisions that will follow have far-reaching implications for people, communities, food supply, energy development and recreation and wildlife.

Ron Thompson, manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said water can make or break a society.

"I have heard it said many times, and I believe it is true, that water is the major commodity of the 21st century," he said. "Those who plan for it will succeed. Those who don't will fail. We can't afford to fail in southwest Utah, and I don't think we can afford to fail in Utah."

Water issues that have been dominating public policy discussions and slamming decision-makers into the political hot seat over the past several years generally center on three broad categories: conflict, construction and conservation.

Conflict

There's no shortage of the wringing of hands over pressing tug-of-wars when it comes to water.

The Snake Valley aquifer that flows through a shared basin of Nevada and Utah has prompted a flurry of legal challenges, spawned multiple public hearings with the governor and brought about a slew of studies to determine how much water exists in the aquifer now and how much will be there years to come if there is pumping by Nevada.

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.

It's a huge effort every year to stamp out the problem, said Jordan Nielson, the state's aquatic species coordinator with the Division of Wildlife Resources, but the costly consequences of doing nothing loom all too large.

"If it were to get into water delivery systems, it could cost $15 (million) to $16 million," Nielson said, "and that could be a fraction of what the ultimate cost could be."

Conservation, in the sense of saving water by reducing use, is gaining traction among household users and the agricultural community, but much more is left to be done.

Herbert has set a goal to shave consumption by 25 percent by 2025, but critics such as the Utah Rivers Council point to neighboring states that have loftier goals, such as 40 percent, and charge that Utah is lagging behind.

Water conservation districts continue to preach water-wise landscaping by diminishing turf space and using plants that require less water. Since close to 85 percent of Utah's water resources are consumed by the agricultural community, emphasis is being directed to implement new technologies to become more efficient in farming practices.

Still, people need to understand agricultural water use is intensive, said Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy for the Utah Farm Bureau.

"We obviously live in a state where water is a precious commodity," Brown said, "but in general, the public forgets the enormous amount of water it takes to produce our food and fiber."

One watermelon takes 100 gallons of water to produce. A loaf of bread requires 150 gallons.

"Our reliability on a safe, protected quality water source has a direct link to the cost of food, and it does not get much more important than that," he said. "We must remember that food and water certainly tops the list in our standard of living and our quality of life."

Listening sessions

The Utah Farm Bureau, like other groups throughout the state, is urging its membership to turn out to the listening sessions to lend their voice to recommendations that will be presented Oct. 30.

"These are contentious issues that are not likely to be resolved anytime soon," Erickson said. "The summit will not solve everything in October. But the sooner we begin to have conversations that start from a similar baseline, the better."

The governor's public meetings on water issues will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on the following dates and locations:

July 11 — Layton City Council chambers, 437 N. Wasatch Drive, Layton

July 16 — Price City Hall, Room 207, 185 E. Main, Price

July 18 — Provo High School auditorium, 1125 N. University Ave., Provo

July 25 — Dixie State University Dunford Auditorium, 225 S. 700 East, St. George

Aug. 6 — Vernal City Community Room, 447 E. Main, Vernal

Aug. 13 — Utah Department of Natural Resources auditorium, 1594 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City.

Aug. 15 — Mount Logan Middle School, 875 N. 200 East, Logan.

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