Will Utah have sufficient water in an era of declining stream flows to support a population expected to double, strong agriculture, recreation economies and a healthy environment?
While that sounds like having your Diet Coke and drinking it, too, water policy honchos believe Utah can meet its future water needs, though not without developing new sources and improving the way water is currently used.
The use-it-or-lose-it foundation of Western water law promotes waste or at least suboptimal use of this most precious natural resource and is fraught with disincentives for conservation.
Several bills cued up for this legislative session seek to reduce Utahns’ notoriously profligate water use and to add flexibility to the ways water rights are administered. In general, lawmakers prefer addressing the water question with “market-based voluntary transactions” as opposed to regulatory “command and control” oversight.
A ‘bank’ for liquid assets
The idea, which is already being tested on the Provo River and in Cache Valley, is to allow water that would otherwise be used for irrigation to remain in a waterway, where it would support in-stream flows and reach downstream reservoirs. Farmers who do that now can find themselves without water in the future because someone else might want to use that water.
“This is something worth doing for the benefit of the state,” water attorney Steve Clyde told the Legislature’s Water Development Commission at its last meeting in November. “But we have to make sure these are valid water rights that are being banked, that people aren’t dealing with prior forfeited rights and paper rights and the speculators we have seen out there in the marketplace.”
Reducing per-capita use
“We are some of the highest water users in the country in the second driest state,” Harrison said. “The bill simply asks districts to go though the exercise of thinking about how they could get to 175 gallons per day.”
The bill wouldn’t mandate water providers to achieve that goal, which is far less than what most Utahns use, but rather evaluate the measures that could get them there. It would also require the districts to estimates the costs they incur by providing water above that level.
“Saving water is the cheapest source of new water,” Harrison said.
Reining in the sprinklers
Metering this water won’t be cheap, but conservation advocates such as Frankel and Nuding say it would be worth the investment and pay for itself.
It costs up to $1,000 per connection to install meters, and there would be additional costs to read them and bill customers. The bill’s price tag could reach into the tens of millions of dollars.
“This idea that it is too costly is ludicrous because there is a revenue stream there. If they raise [water] rates nominally, they can pay for it,” Frankel said. “For us to debate whether to require metering is a sign of how far behind the times Utah is.”
The Division of Water Resources has estimated that Utahns use about 115,000 acre-feet a year in secondary water, although the recent audits suggest the actual volume could be much higher. Metering would cut that use by 40 percent, resulting in a potential savings of at least 46,000 acre-feet, according to an analysis Frankel cited.
Anderegg, a Lehi Republican, proposes appropriating money for loans and grants to help defray metering costs to the tune of $5 million a year through 2030.