SALT LAKE CITY — When the winter conference of the Western Governors' Association convened earlier this month in Las Vegas, the response to the ongoing drought in the West was high on the agenda.
The association's chairman, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, has made drought his policy initiative, and a series of forums are being held throughout the West to understand its effects.
By June, the association will release a list of best practices — a sort of battle plan to help governors counter the slate of economic, social and environmental impacts playing out from the three-year drought, California's worst drought in its 119-year recorded history.
Regional water managers, too, met last week in Las Vegas to discuss contingency plans for Utah and the six other Colorado River basin states amid the fear that the first declared shortage on the river will happen within a few years.
Whatever decisions emerge will affect the state as one of the primary users on the river and as a state held to agreements that force downstream delivery of water to states like California.
In Utah, a team of 40 water experts has been meeting during the past year to craft a list of recommendations for Gov. Gary Herbert on dealing with state-specific challenges when it comes to its water supply.
The meetings are brainstorming sessions on how to keep the taps flowing for residents, industry, institutions, farms and to the benefit of the environment as the state adds another 2.5 million people by 2050.
While the conversation on water has long included the urban and rural planners, municipal suppliers, conservancy district managers and politicians, the dialogue has expanded with some urgency to include key environmental considerations and the economy — that is, managing water to manage and preserve Utah's quality of life.
Water and the economy
"We view efforts to judiciously utilize and develop our water resources as a key to economic development," said the Salt Lake Chamber's Justin Jones. "It is very important to us to have this precious resource — not only for our residents but for our businesses and for those who visit to recreate."
Jones, the chamber's vice president of public policy, said that recognition drove the chamber's establishment this year of the "Water is Your Business" campaign, which highlights the need to conserve and to examine what future investments are needed to insure water supplies in the future.
"We benefit today from visionary leaders of the past who did make the great investments in our water infrastructure," Jones said. "We have the water we need for today because we had leaders with vision in the past who invested in the infrastructure they knew that we would need to be successful."
As part of its campaign, the chamber has organized business leaders to institute corporate conservation efforts, hosted tours to showcase how water is managed and formed a task force to probe the most compelling challenges.
The chamber, has not, however, taken policy position on the push called "Prepare60" undertaken by the four largest water conservancy districts in the state: Jordan Valley, Central Utah, Weber Basin and Washington County.
Citing projected population growth and a water-dependent economy, a consultant's report for Prepare60 projects that nearly $33 billion in new water demand and repair and replacement costs will be necessary to deliver water where it is needed over the next 45 years.
"We're not completely on board with some of the figures," Jones said, "and we are still trying to grasp the enormity of those costs."
Utah's water use
Representatives of the four districts are on a public awareness campaign to spread their message about supplies being outstripped by population by 2030, just as local water conservation advocacy organizations like the Utah Rivers Council are on a counter-campaign to dispute the need for projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline or the Bear River Development proposal.
Fueled by a U.S. Geological Survey recent inventory of water use in each of the 50 states, the council's Zach Frankel calls Utah the biggest water waster in the nation, with the state highest in the country for the gallons used per person.
Utah's rate of 248 gallons of water per person, like other Western states, is linked to high outdoor use of potable or drinking water, and the region's dry climate. An analysis by the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project shows Utah second to Idaho at 167 gallons per capita in domestic water use.
But state water managers say Frankel is wrongly interpreting the USGS numbers — which also include secondary water use — and that other states may not be counting that type of consumption.
"Since each USGS office collects data from these various sources in their respective states, there are differences in how each state’s numbers are produced," said Eric Klotz, water conservation and education chief for the Utah Division of Water Resources. "Thus, it would be unfair to compare water use between different states."
But that tension and controversy over the water habits of Utahns, the pricing of water via property tax rates and looming water development projects are all driving a lot of questions and a sense of urgency to arrive at answers.
Seeking an answer
In his budget recommendations released this month, Herbert said he wants the state to spend $100,000 on a water rates study and said it may be time to change pricing.
"You'll hear the phrase 'the true cost of water,' and water is being subsidized. For good and noble reasons it has been subsidized, but it may be time to adjust those subsidies," Herbert said.
Frankel stressed that damming rivers like the Bear and piping water out of Lake Powell are projects that are unnecessary, hoisting exorbitant costs on taxpayers and harming natural environments.
Earlier this year, an issue paper raised the concern of Frankel's group. The Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan policy and research organization, released its third of four reports examining Utah's water outlook and the issues that surround consumption.
"Development of water supplies is a slow process, but population growth is an ever-present factor," said Stephen Kroes, foundation president. "Everybody wants to now how we are going to be able to provide enough water for 2.5 million more Utahns."
Kroes added he believes the drought, plus Utah's growing pains, are elevating the conversation on water use.
"We know that the fact that our state is dry is the reason we use so much water in our homes to water our landscapes, but the two facts don't go together very well," he said.
The foundation's report acknowledged the deep divide between the idea there is enough water if people conserve, or that supplies won't be adequate for the state's growing population.
"Water development is more contentious than it was years ago," Kroes said. ""There are more powerful environmental and conservation voices than there were 50 years ago."
Kroes said that Utah's high consumption rates suggest more could be done to conserve, adding that an analysis by the foundation concluded a 20 percent savings would be realized if people were simply more efficient at watering landscapes.
"It seems that it is an open question of whether we could conserve enough to eliminate the need for expensive new projects and make our current supply last longer," he said. "The problem is I am not sure we have time to wait to see how incentives impact conservation."