Editorial: Utah lacks good numbers on water needs

First Published      Last Updated May 06 2015 06:21 pm

For years, conservation groups and good government activists have questioned the numbers used by the Utah Division of Natural Resources and others to project the need for some $33 billion in environmentally disruptive projects to meet the water demands of a rapidly growing state population.

Almost two years ago, the Legislative Auditor General's Office took on the complex task of breaking down the water projection numbers and evaluating their accuracy.

Tuesday, the Legislature's auditors issued their report.

Bottom line: Utah has no idea how much additional water it will need to serve a population that, experts agree, promises/threatens to double by the year 2060.

Responsible people at the Utah Division of Water Resources and within the various water basin authorities, who are supposed to know this kind of stuff, looked at those population estimates and projected that the demand for residential and industrial water supplies would exceed the state's ready supply by 2040. Thus they started planning, and building public support for, giant water storage and transportation projects that included a behemoth pipeline to carry water from Lake Powell to the growing cities of southwest Utah and a series of projects in the Bear River Basin.

The new audit should shut the valve on those ideas for some time to come.

Among the findings from the green-eye shade brigade are that state and local water managers don't really know how much water Utahns are using now.

That they have blindly accepted the idea that whatever estimates they have for current per-person usage are true and will remain so into the future.

That they have vastly undervalued the amount of water to be saved as irrigated farmland becomes homes and warehouses.

And, most important, that they have scarcely given a thought to how Utah businesses and households could use less water.

The audit notes that water users in Utah, generally, pay a fraction of the rates that consumers in other Western states are charged. Raising those rates, and curtailing the practice of subsidizing water system revenues with property taxes, would go a long way toward helping consumers to understand the value of the resource they so often squander and change their habits.

It is hard to know whether it is reassuring or maddening that the agency's official response to the audit basically agrees with all of its conclusions and promises to do better.

It's about time.