SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative audits raising questions over how water is priced, the reliability of how it is measured, and how much will be needed in the decades to come prompted a trio of panel discussions on Utah's Capitol Hill on Wednesday, with most agreeing some system fixes are in order.
The types of changes implemented and how broad those are remain the big question, and if there exists political will to tackle the complex problems that accompany reform.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, co-chairman of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, moderated the discussions and afterward said there is high probability new legislation will emerge in 2016.
"The question will be whether we can pass something," said Jenkins, a Republican from Plain City who has had his own water-related experiences as chairman of the Bona Vista District.
Jenkins said audits performed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General have made one thing clear to him: There is more water that exists than everyone who should be counting has been counting.
"We have much more water than we anticipated we have," he said, adding that the inaccuracy of water-collection data suggests big water development projects could be delayed for a time.
With Utah's population expected to nearly double by 2050 — the equivalent of adding another West Jordan or Layton each year until then — the pressure is on to make the most efficient use of the water already developed and cast an eye around for more that could come into the system.
"If we are going to spend billions of dollars to improve our water systems, we need good data to make sure those resources are justified and spent well," said Jim Behunin, audit supervisor with the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.
Behunin added that in the probe of how individual community water systems counted water use, some were unconcerned that the data was flawed and even the most basic of technology to make improvements had been ignored.
Joanna Endter-Wada, a Utah State University professor who has conducted water-related research for more than 25 years, said reliable water-use data is at the heart of managing the resource for demand, and getting the public's buy-in to conserve.
"If we value water, we should require that it be measured or metered," she said.
Endter-Wada pointed to the success of Weber Basin Water Conservancy District's pilot project to meter secondary water connections, which demonstrated average reductions of more than 71,000 gallons of water per property from 2012 to 2013 — because people were aware of what they were using. She said in surveys that were conducted among targeted users, 70 percent noted they were surprised to learn how much water they applied to landscapes.
She added that it makes little sense to have "one city's carefully conserved water become another city's waste."
Jenkins stressed, too, that there are some nonsensical landscape requirements by local governments that fly in the face of a water conservation ethic.
He pointed to an example of a city requiring 25 percent of a property to include lawn and vegetation, only to have another requirement that the property feature solid fencing that put the "green space" out of view.
Jenkins pointedly asked Ken Bullock, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, how receptive his constituents would be to legislative mandates that zapped turf requirements or otherwise affected what cities could do.
"I think you will run into a buzz saw," Bullock responded.
But Bart Forsyth, assistant general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, said it is important that water providers educate their customers on more "water-wise" landscaping and help people make choices that conserve.
"I hate to say this, but I think our love affair with Kentucky bluegrass has to come to an end," Forsyth said.
As much as the audits uncovered room for improvement in water accountability at both the state and local levels, the committee meeting did demonstrate certain successes.
Jay Humphrey, with the Emery County Water Conservancy District, said $100 million has been spent in his district to monitor all water applications in real time.
Humphrey added that as he sat in the committee meeting Wednesday, he was managing the system at Joe's Valley Reservoir remotely because it needed attention.
The upgrades have helped Emery County endure the drought much more painlessly than the area would have otherwise encountered, Humphrey said.
"We survived the drought in Emery County," he said. "We have not had all the water we wanted, but we had all the water we needed."