Water in the West has always been a scarce commodity. I think when you have large urban growth pressures, using and acquiring water for that community is going to be a challenge. —Jeff Niermeyer, director of Salt Lake City's public utilities department
SALT LAKE CITY — Strained water resources and a decrepit storage and delivery system are dual concerns nagging at water providers across the country, but no more apparent than in the Rocky Mountain region that includes Utah.
A report released Tuesday that surveyed nearly 400 municipal, county or other types of providers revealed that aging pipelines, dams, tunnels, pumping and storage and treatment facilities ranked as the No. 1 issue confronting the industry in all regions of the nation.
While water scarcity/availability and conservation earned the No. 9 spot as an issue of concern on a national level, it ranked fourth in the Southwest and even higher, at No. 2, in the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah.
"Water in the West has always been a scarce commodity," said Jeff Niermeyer, director of Salt Lake City's public utilities department. "I think when you have large urban growth pressures, using and acquiring water for that community is going to be a challenge."
The survey, in its second year, was conducted by Black & Veatch, a global engineering, construction and consulting company specializing in a variety of infrastructure arenas such as water, energy and telecommunications.
A report on those results, "Strategic Directions in the U.S. Water Industry," found that nearly 70 percent of water utility providers are implementing drought contingency plans that embrace conversation, community outreach and using or developing alternative water supplies.
"Across the United States, recent droughts have threatened the reliability of supplies and brought the related issues, such as the impacts of climate change, to the fore," the report said. "While reports of drought conditions in the Southwest are not surprising, the Southeast and Midwest also have experienced drought conditions. As water utilities develop long-range water supply plans, their priorities reflect the climate realities of more frequent and extreme droughts."
Nearly 73 percent of Utah is in moderate drought, according to the latest numbers provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor, while the rest of the state is in extreme drought.
That level of concern, Niermeyer said, is exacerbated when the unpredictability of climate change is added to the mix.
"Our virtual reservoir, our snowpack, is projected to be less, with more water falling as rain, which does not stick around."
The report also found that despite all the concern about aging infrastructure, it is getting little attention by the caretakers and financiers of the system.
Overall, on a national level, the report shows that investment in rehabilitation and replacement of aging systems often lags what is required, with systems being fixed at a rate of less than 1 percent.
Niermeyer said taking care of those systems is a constant process.
"Particularly if you have a large system, such as Salt Lake City's, an older system, there is lot of infrastructure that has to be rehabbed and replaced. There is always a bigger need than the dollars. Utilities tend to stay out of sight and out of mind."
Salt Lake City, however, has weathered rate increases to pay for repairs and upgrades, and Niermeyer said, on average, one-third of his money for that area goes to infrastructure replacement.
Unfortunately, the state's director of the Division of Water Quality, Walt Baker, sees too many circumstances where that is not the case — and especially when it comes to maintenance.
"This is more than a story about aging infrastructure, it is a story about properly maintaining systems and replacing parts that need to be replaced," Baker said. "We drive a car and put oil in the car. We don't drive the car until it runs out of oil, crack the engine block and replace the car. It's too expensive. We overlook maintenance and defer it."
He added that the community of Eureka came to the Utah Water Quality Board last month looking for financial assistance on a system in need of help. At its next meeting in June, the Long Valley system serving the Glendale area in Kane County will do the same, he said.
"They have deferred maintenance on the system, keeping rates artificially low because they're not willing to do replacement," he said. "Now they are at a catastrophic crossroads."
He said the water providers need $1.5 million to pay for massive repairs.
"And the rates for the community will skyrocket. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Sadly, we have not learned that lesson," Baker said.