WASHINGTON — Water resources are precious, particularly in the West, and while technology and rules on water use will help people conserve more water, public education is the best tool in water conservation efforts, a Utah water official told a House panel Tuesday.

The nation's demand for water is increasing faster than the population is growing, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has a pending bill that would put federal research into technologies that can help conserve water or use it more efficiently.

Matheson said Utah's Washington County is one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, and one of the most arid, but it has figured out ways to use water effectively.

Ron Thompson, district manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, described several of the county's programs at a House Science and Technology Committee Energy and Environment Subcommittee hearing. He pointed out that the county gets only about 8 inches of rain a year.

"Water conservation is not optional for us, it is a way of life that each of our citizens must embrace," Thompson said.

In the last 11 years, per-capita water use in the county has dropped 24 percent, and the county wants to save an additional 25 percent in 2008, he said.

Public education is an important part of this goal, because people can make the right decision once they know more about the issue, Thompson said. Right now, students in the county learn in school about water conservation, and the county sponsors water fairs, garden demonstrations and presentations to local organizations.

The county also has ultra low flush toilet rebates, an AstroTurf rebate program and training for landscapers to use water-wise plants.

Matheson's bill, the Water-Use Efficiency and Conservation Research Act of 2007, would create an Environmental Protection Agency research and development program to promote water efficiency and conservation. The program would include a database where the government would collect and share information on water conservation.

The bill would direct the program to look at water storage and distribution systems, as well as obstacles faced when trying to achieve greater water efficiency. The program would also look at ways to treat and process rainwater, waste water and other water sources, such as those from bathtubs or kitchen appliances.

The EPA now has no specific efforts looking at water-supply issues, according to the committee. The agency focuses on water quality, treatment and pollution, but not on efficiency or conservation.

Thompson said he supports Matheson's bill because the population will continue to grow, and there will be water shortages and long-lasting droughts. A technology database is a "great solution" because water managers often are reinventing the wheel, when many share the same problems, Thompson said.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com