Tapping Out

Utahns Face an Increasingly Tight Water Supply

Gaylen Webb

June 6, 2013

Utah is running out of water.

Do you think that’s an exaggeration? Consider that by about 2050, Utah’s population will have doubled to more than 5 million people, and demand for Utah’s limited water resources will boom right along with the population, according to Utah Division of Water Resources. If Utah’s municipal and industrial water demands increase at the same rate as the state’s population growth, we’re headed for trouble.

The water situation isn’t a train wreck yet. Instead, it is more of a “Houston, we have a problem,” says Dennis Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Utah’s water challenges are prompting leaders in state government, water conservancy districts, cities and towns to asking three primary questions: How do we plan for population growth? How do we finance repairs to our aging infrastructure, as well as future water developments? And how do we balance the conflicting demands in a state thirsty for every drop of water?

Utah, Pop. 5 Million

The question of whether we will have enough water for the expanding population is something water experts like Tage Flint think about every day. He’s general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which serves the needs of 620,000 residents in Davis, Weber, Morgan and Summit counties, and a portion of Box Elder County. Flint has been accused of building water projects for the entertainment value, but there’s no entertainment in it—just a desire to keep the faucets flowing.

Last year, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, which serves the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, Magna, Herriman, Bluffdale, Draper, Midvale, areas of Murray, South Salt Lake and Cottonwood, saw its water consumption jump by 23,000 acre feet from 2011. The increase is equivalent to more than six Mountain Dell Reservoirs full of water, according to Richard Bay, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. Some of that increase was likely due to the abrupt change from a cool spring climate to an especially hot summer. The end of the recession might also have influenced the spike as buyers reoccupied empty homes.

But much of it had to do with population growth. “It just indicates the challenge of trying to develop and contract for new water supplies fast enough to keep up with our growing population. That is our biggest challenge,” says Bay.

Growth has slowed in Utah’s Dixie, but the population of Washington County is still expected to top 371,000 by around 2040—more than double the current population. Washington County Economic Development Director Scott Hirschi says opinions are divided as to whether the county can adequately provide water to 371,000 people through conservation efforts or new water projects.

In Sanpete County, some cities have moratoriums on hookups to irrigation water, and one city in the county has a moratorium on building.

Slow the Flow?

One answer to the population growth is conservation. In Utah, we love our lush lawns and our green landscapes. Consequently, we pour approximately two-thirds of our water onto our landscapes every year. Hirschi says in Washington County, summer water use is three to four times higher than in the winter, supporting the fact that much of our summer water goes to the landscape.

Furthermore, Strong says an analysis by the Division of Water Resources shows on the whole, Utahns have been over-watering their landscapes by about 25 percent, but educational efforts like the “Slow the Flow” campaign have helped cut that over-watering by about 18 percent overall.

“Utah is catching on,” says Strong. “I have a great deal of faith the state has a good conservation ethic.”

In his January State of the State address, Gov. Gary R. Herbert challenged Utahns to cut their water use by 25 percent by 2025. Most of the water conservancy districts were already working to hit that mark by 2050, but readily accepted the shortened deadline.

Alan Matheson, Herbert’s senior environmental adviser, says water conservation is the low-hanging fruit that’s ripe for picking. Furthermore, forthcoming technologies will help reduce water use in our homes, our appliances and our landscaping. He also notes a movement in communities toward smaller lot sizes, which cuts water use, along with water-wise ordinances and pay structures that encourage conservation.

In the past, water conservation wasn’t considered a water development issue. It is now, says Flint. “If we can reduce our per capita use of water, in essence we have created a block of water that can be used for the new population—before we spend any money on new water-development projects.”

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