Tapping Out

Utahns Face an Increasingly Tight Water Supply

Gaylen Webb

June 6, 2013

That extra block of water is critical, as Strong estimates by 2050, 60 percent of the state’s water needs will have to be met through conservation. Hirschi adds that through conservation and efficiency, the one-acre foot of water consumed by the typical family every year could support two or three, possibly even four families.

But conservation isn’t the only answer. Another 10 percent will be met through water management changes (better controls, fixing leaks, efficiency improvements, new technology, etc.) and the remaining 30 percent will have to be met through the development of new water projects.

Fixing the Plumbing

Matheson says there is no question having adequate water is a critical factor in securing Utah’s future. “We need water for our population, for our food supply, for recreation and to sustain the natural environment that we love.”

He is currently leading the development of a new, long-range water plan for the state. Over the next six or seven months, Strong, Flint and four other water experts will host public meetings at various locations across the state to collect input regarding Utah’s water future. Data collected during the public meetings will be reported at the Governor’s Utah Water Summit to be held in late October.

“We want to involve more of the public in the development of the plan,” says Matheson. “The watchword for the whole process is innovation. Just dealing with water the way we have done in the past is not going to solve all of our long-range problems. We need to be creative in our approaches to problem solving and innovative in the use of technology so we can grow while using less water.”

Flint agrees, saying public input and debate is essential to Utah’s water future. “We need the community to give us direction on how we should proceed with water development.”

Part of the public discussions will focus on infrastructure challenges, such as how to pay for maintenance and repairs to the state’s aging water-treatment and delivery systems as well as the construction of new systems. Moving water from where it occurs naturally to where it is needed is expensive. 

Strong says it will take about $16 billion over the next 20 years to cover repairs and new construction. Where that money will come from will be part of the debate. Some of the expense is necessary to meet federal water-quality standards for culinary water treatment and wastewater discharge. A large portion of the money will be spent to repair and replace pipelines and treatment systems that are, in many cases, more than 50 years old.

In the past, Utah relied heavily on federal funds to help pay for water projects, but according to Tage, “the federal government has put us on notice that they have no intention of funding the rebuilding or replacement of that infrastructure.” Hence, such costs will largely fall into the laps of consumers and taxpayers. Matheson says Utahns will have to explore creative ways to fund the maintenance of our existing infrastructure as well as any new projects on the horizon.

However it is funded, the aging infrastructure is a growing problem. Bay says his conservancy district is already in replacement mode for many of its pipelines. “We operate 300 miles of large-diameter pipelines just here in the Salt Lake Valley. Replacement and repair has become a major issue,” he says.

It’s clear, as Strong points out, that Utah can’t completely satisfy its thirst for water solely through conservation. New water projects will have to be built—otherwise, population growth must be limited and the aesthetics of the landscape altered.

“Make no mistake about it, the population we now have along the Wasatch Front could not survive on stream flows alone. We had to build all of the reservoirs and infrastructure we currently use to meet the needs of the population we now have. Looking to the future, new water storage through reservoirs and other projects is essential to our survival,” says Flint.

One of the most controversial water development projects is the proposed 139-mile Lake Powell pipeline, which would draw 100,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to support the growth of Kane, Iron and Washington counties. Cost for the pipeline is estimated at $1 billion.

Only slightly less controversial—perhaps only because it has a longer development horizon—is the proposed $1.5 billion Bear River development project, the biggest water project ever to be attempted in the state. The Bear River is described as the last frontier of Utah water development. The project would include the expansion of Hyrum Reservoir in Cache County and the construction of other reservoirs within the Bear River drainage.

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