How long will water last as St. George continues to grow?

Officials say they’ll still need the Lake Powell pipeline to meet the 176,000 acre-foot demand expected by 2070.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Land between Interstate 15 and the town of Toquerville, is the site of the future Toquer Reservoir and park, Thursday, May 12, 2022.

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St. George • In drought-stricken Washington County, there might not be enough water in several years to meet the demand brought on by the area’s rapid growth, but water officials insist there is no reason to panic — yet.

By their calculations, the Washington County Water Conservancy District has enough water to supply at least 16,000 or more Equivalent Residential Connections (ERCs) or hookups for new construction.

“That represents nearly five to seven years based on the growth we’ve had over the past few years,” said Ivins Mayor Chris Hart, who also sits on the water district’s board of trustees.

Between July 2020 and July 2021, Washington County had the highest growth by percentage of any metro area in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Because of the rapid growth, we are required to bring on new additional projects or we would get to a point where we wouldn’t have sufficient supply,” said Zach Renstrom, the district’s executive director. “We always want to stay ahead of the curve.”

Despite the growth, district officials say there are enough water projects and conservation measures on tap to avoid any worst-case scenarios in the immediate future. The district has three reservoirs in varying stages of planning or construction.

Work is already underway on Toquer Reservoir, located just west of Toquerville on State Road 17. Once it is completed within the next few years, the 115-acre reservoir would store up to 3,638 acre-feet of water. The reservoir would capture water from Ash Creek, an important Virgin River tributary.

Two more small reservoirs, each between 2,000 and 5,000 acre-feet, are planned for west Washington County — Dry Wash, which will be located in Ivins near Kayenta, and Graveyard, which will be situated between Ivins and Santa Clara and store treated wastewater. The total cost for all three: about $100 million, an amount the district will cover with revenue generated from impact fees, water rates and property taxes.

Renstrom said the environmental review process on the two reservoirs is already done and construction is expected to begin in about 18 months after the district finishes securing the land from the Bureau of Land Management, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration and several private owners.

District officials also have plans to drill more wells near Sand Hollow Reservoir, which the district has been recharging for years. They further want to focus on drilling more wells in other areas and implementing a countywide system for treating more sewer water for reuse.

In the meantime, the district is touting conservation as an important key in stretching its dwindling supply until more water becomes available.

A thirsty county tries to save water

In 2000, Washington County’s per capita water use rate was 439 gallons per day. Two decades later, the county’s per capita water use rate dropped to 285 gallons per day, according to Utah’s Open Water Data Portal.

“Since 2000, we’ve reduced our water use by 30% per capita, which is phenomenal,” said district spokesperson Karry Rathje.

The district has set a goal to reduce water use in traditional homes by another 20%. Ivins, Santa Clara, Washington City and Hurricane have already enlisted in the effort, passing water conservation ordinances that, among other things, limit the amount of grass on lots and park strips and require water-wise landscaping and plumbing fixtures on new construction. St. George is expected to follow suit in the next few weeks.

In May, hundreds of volunteers removed more than 115,000 square feet of grass in the county as part of Flip Blitz, a statewide campaign to remove and replace grass with more water-efficient landscaping at homes and businesses. The conversion will save about four million gallons of water a year, according to the district.

Zachary Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council isn’t impressed. He noted that 115,000 square feet is equivalent to a mere 2.6 acres. He also cited a U.S. Geological Survey, which found the average resident in Washington County uses 306 gallons of water per day. In contrast, Denver and Las Vegas residents use 144 and 115 gallons per day, respectively. The national average is 138 gallons per day.

“If we are really serious about saving water and lowering our water use, why is the water use in Washington County 306 gallons per person per day?” Frankel asks.

District officials counter that the number is misleading because Utah measures its water use differently.

“We count every application of water,” Rathje said. “Whereas, some neighboring water providers only report consumptive water use … If we treat sewer water and use it for irrigation, that water is actually counted twice.”

In Las Vegas and other areas, Renstrom interjected, water that is used and put back in the system for reuse is subtracted from the total. If that is taken into account, Washington County’s water usage is typical of other Western states.

Moreover, district officials say the Utah Division of Water Resources’ numbers for 2020, the most recent available, are more accurate. Washington County residents used an average of 226 gallons of potable or drinkable water per day and 59 gallons of secondary water, according to the division.

Betting on the Lake Powell pipeline

Ultimately, however many new projects come online or how much residents save, district officials are still relying on the Lake Powell pipeline to meet future demands. In 2020, the district delivered 32,000 acre-feet of water, about 87% of its 36,659 acre-feet yearly supply. The county’s total yearly water supply, from district and municipal sources and upcoming local projects, is estimated at 100,000 acre-feet.

But the demand for water is projected to jump to 176,000 acre-feet by 2070.

If it is built, the 140-mile pipeline would carry 83,756 acre-feet a year, more than 27 billion gallons, from Lake Powell to Washington County.

“Without the Lake Powell Project, we would get to a certain point in our county where we would literally need to … have a building moratorium,” Renstrom said. “We would have to say. ‘No more building allowed. If you want water, you’ll have to wait for someone to move out or die.’ "

Frankel’s advice on the pipeline to Washington County: Don’t bank on it!

Since the district is sitting on a “massive water surplus,” he said there’s no danger the county’s spigot will run dry. And with water in Lake Powell at historic lows, he characterizes the pipeline as more pipe dream than reality.

“There’s no water in Lake Powell to pump into the Lake Powell pipeline …,” he said. “And now they want to tax all Utahns to build this boondoggle — this multibillion-dollar water project that we don’t need — when there is no water in Lake Powell to take it from because [they] claim they are running out.”

Renstrom, nonetheless, remains optimistic the water will be there but added that even if Lake Powell disappeared, the district would still have the option to tap water from the Colorado River.

By a century-old agreement, upper basin states in the Colorado Basin must release 7.5 million acre-feet of water to Lower Basin states and Mexico. Utah is entitled to 23% of what is left over.

State officials have long claimed that Utah is not getting its full share of water and would like to draw out even more.

That may be problematic.

Climate change and shrinking snowpacks have reduced the water supply of the Colorado River Basin by 20%. To address the problem, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told Congress last month that the seven states of the Colorado River Basin had 60 days to come up with an emergency plan to conserve between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water next year in the Colorado River System. If the seven states, which includes Utah, fail to agree to a plan, the bureau will impose cuts.

Roughly 40 million people in seven states rely on water from the Colorado River. Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico make up the Upper Basin States. Arizona, California and Nevada are in the Lower Basin.

Rather than conjure up water that is not there, Frankel argues the district should get real about conservation. Currently, the district collects as much or more revenue from property taxes than it does from selling water. He said the district should phase out the property taxes it collects from homeowners, businesses and car owners, which offset the true cost of water.

Instead, he added, the district should raise the price of water, which would incentivize water users to conserve. He said the district’s current rate is one of the lowest in the country.

“If Washington County continues to have the cheapest water in the country, they will continue to have one of the [nation’s] highest per person water-use rates,” Frankel said.

Inequity is another issue.

“There are 13 golf courses in Washington County,” Frankel said. “Four of them are municipality-owned, meaning those municipalities that own those golf courses and are using water on those golf courses are exempt from paying one cent in property taxes.

“So all the taxpayers in Washington County are subsidizing those golf courses to use water,” he added. “Is that really conservation? It is ignoring the free market, and it is wasting vast quantities of water. And it is not just those golf courses; it is every school, every church and every university.”

For his part, Renstrom said the property taxes collected enable the district to get a better bond rating, meaning it’s cheaper to borrow money. The district also uses property taxes for environmental remediation and watershed and endangered species protection.

“We are not just delivering water, we are doing a whole heck of a lot more, and we need those funds,” he said. If the district quit collecting property taxes, “the individuals who would get hurt the most would be senior citizens, disabled veterans, and people on fixed incomes. I talk with these people. I meet with these people, I have a lot of sympathy for them.”

Correction • Aug. 3, 2022. This article was updated to say that Washington County Water Conservancy District currently uses 87% of its 36,659 acre-feet yearly supply. The county expects to have 100,000 acre-feet after its water projects and if you include municipal sources.