Utah sets new goals to cut water use, but critics say it goes too easy on Washington County

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A child plays in the water as kids cool off at Mountain View Park in Cottonwood Heights. Utah’s water conservation goals got a big makeover this week with the release of a revised plan for reducing municipal water use.

Utah’s water conservation goals got a big makeover this week with the release of a revised plan for reducing municipal water use, identifying different targets for different parts of the state.

Critics say the plan, out for public comment through Sept. 25 before final adoption by the Utah Division of Water Resources, goes too easy on the surging St. George metro area, where daily per-capita water use exceeds 300 gallons — a high number some officials say is deceiving.

The plan looks for a 16% reduction averaged across the state by 2030 and up to 20% in much of Utah.

“A regional approach allows the goals to be tailored for nine different regions around the state and takes into account climate, elevation, and each region’s characteristics and needs,” said Division of Water Resources Deputy Director Todd Adams. “Given Utah’s diverse geography, establishing region-specific goals makes sense.”

The water-use-reduction goal is lower for Kane and Washington counties, which plan to build, with assistance from Utah taxpayers, a $1.4 billion pipeline from Lake Powell to augment their supplies. The division proposes those counties cut per-capita use by 14%, to 262 gallons, an amount that is far higher than many Southwestern cities currently use, critics say.

That softer target reflects Washington County’s transient population, as well as its severe aridity, which increases outdoor watering needs, according to Rachel Shilton, the division’s section chief over river basin planning.

“They have a lot of tourists, and they aren’t just visitors in hotels. They are part-time residents in houses, and those people water their lawns throughout the summertime when they’re not there,” Shilton said. “St. George doesn’t get to count that population in their gallons-per-capita-per-day calculation.”

Utah, the nation’s biggest per capita water guzzler, initially established targets for reduced nonagricultural use of water in 2000, when officials set a goal of 25% reduction by 2025. The growing state is on track to meet that goal, but water officials have concluded that reducing per-capita use will not prevent the state from running out of water — without help from large-scale water development.

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, called the plan a “shell game” to help justify big river-disrupting water projects.

“A 14% reduction sounds like a lot, but if you look out to 2065, the goal is a 22% reduction,” Frankel said. “If you do the math in terms of time frame, it’s less than half a percent a year. This is junk.”

Frankel and others believe that the proposed 140-mile Lake Powell pipeline, which would divert 86,000 acre-feet of water, would not be needed if residents aligned their water use with that of their neighbors in southern Nevada.

“While our neighboring states are preparing for a future with less water, Utah’s meager conservation goals are laughable“ said Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute.

According to data compiled by the Utah Rivers Council, per-capita water use in Denver, Los Angeles, Tucson and Phoenix in 2015 was 142, 124, 122 and 111 gallons, respectively. The conservation groups are incensed that Utah’s new conservation targets for 2030 don’t even compete with what these Southwestern cities already have accomplished.

But these comparisons are unfair because they fail to consider how Utah cities measure water use differently than in other states, according to Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. Nor do they consider the strides Washington County has made and its large water needs associated with its long growing season and tourist economy, he said.

For example, other states cite only net water use in these calculations, subtracting water that is used but returned to river systems, according to Thompson, while Utah cities rely on gross water use.

Drawn by the scenery, golf and pleasant winter weather, 6 million people visit the county a year and a fifth of the population is seasonal, according to Thompson. Second-home owners use almost as much water as those who occupy their homes year-round.

Residents of Washington and Kane counties used 305 gallons a day in 2015. The new plan expects that number to drop to 262 gallons by 2030, a target Thompson believes is too aggressive.

“We picked the low-hanging fruit. This next [round of] water conservation is going to be more difficult,” Thompson said. “You need more expensive practices to get it.

The county has moved to reduce the sizes of new residential lots and the portion of them covered with irrigated landscaping, from 70% to 35%. Sixteen Utah counties have higher water use rates than Washington County. Most of them are rural counties with large numbers of second homes.

The urban Wasatch Front counties have the lowest water use rates, ranging from 210 to 250 gallons per day per person. Yet Thompson contends his county has led the state in reducing use since 2000 and his district does not have much more room to achieve further reductions.

“One of the challenges to the water district is our only tool is public education, enticements, encouragement, give grants," Thompson said. "We really have zero ability to enforce anything.

Frankel and his allies insist Utah water districts can do more to lower use, starting with graduated water rates that increase with the more water a home uses. But state planners still applaud the gains Utah has made, pointing to the difficulty of getting people to change ingrained behavior.

“I would support the more aggressive water conservation goal if it were practical,” Shilton said. “If the entire population was people that are sympathetic to Mr. Frankel’s point of view, then our water use would be lower, but we are working in reality. We are working on changing the attitudes of real people, not just institutions.”