Utahns are often knocked as the most wasteful water users in the U.S. Are the numbers misleading?

Draft legislation would require resource managers to report the amount of water Utahns use.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spinning sprinkler in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.

Utah is often ribbed and, at times, outright rebuked for the amount of water its residents use.

But some of the state’s resources managers claim the data used to make comparisons across states is flawed and unfair, making Utahns’ water habits look much worse than they really are. A draft bill dropped last week during legislative interim hearings that supporters say would collect data about per-person water use that’s more comparable to other arid states in the West.

“When we talk about per capita water use, what are we really talking about?” Mark Stratford, an attorney for Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, told lawmakers in recent hearings. “Because there’s more than one way of having this discussion, but I think it’s not always fully understood.”

Utah typically estimates water use by totaling up the amount of water diverted, whether from surface water streams or groundwater wells, then dividing it by the population. Or they measure it by totaling up the amount of deliveries sent by a water district, then dividing them by the number of residents in the service area. The resulting number is then converted into the gallons of water used per person — or per capita — per day, sometimes abbreviated as GPCD.

But some cities in the West, including those in southern Nevada, credit themselves for “return flows” — water that’s recycled back to the environment via treated wastewater. Utah hasn’t done this in the past, which makes their use look a lot higher in contrast, Startford said.

That’s why water districts are backing a bill that would require them to calculate “consumptive” use per capita, or the amount of water that’s depleted from the system, either through drinking, processing or evaporation.

“When we talk and hear stories about how we use water,” Stratford said, “Utah … [does] not have actually have a firm grasp of what the consumptive per capita use is.”

Under the current system of water use reporting, Stratford added, Utahns may not realize that the “majority, or vast majority” of its municipal water is returned to streams and rivers to continue flowing downhill.

If the proposed legislation becomes law, water districts would also begin collecting data on consumptive residential, commercial and industrial uses from the state’s five largest counties — Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Washington.

But it would also block state agencies and political subdivisions from calculating, publishing or sharing statewide consumptive water use information. It also bars those entities from sharing per capita consumptive use for smaller counties that contradict numbers provided by water districts.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who lawmakers said is behind the draft bill, was traveling abroad and unable to respond to an interview request.

“If we’re concerned about the environment, if we’re concerned about downstream uses including the Great Salt Lake,” Stratford told lawmakers, “we need to know what’s going on with our consumption.”

Water use calculations vary across the West

Multiple requests for comment sent to multiple representatives at Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District did not receive a response.

But Bart Forsyth, the district’s general manager and CEO, previously told The Salt Lake Tribune that if he were to measure use based on consumption, “our per capita use would be much lower and compare much better to our Western neighbors.”

Scott Paxman, general manager and CEO for Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, confirmed in an interview that the motivation behind the proposed bill was all the finger-wagging at Utah’s numbers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tips on how to save water, at Conservation Garden Park on the grounds of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.

“That’s kind of the bottom line,” Paxman said. “We’re getting a lot of comments from federal agencies and other state agencies — [in] Nevada, Arizona, Colorado — saying ‘you guys don’t deserve Colorado River water, you don’t do a good job using what you’ve got.’”

Utah’s water districts tried hiring a consultant, Paxman said, to figure out how water managers in other states measure their use.

“Well, none of them would tell us,” he said.

Methods they were able to glean, Paxman added, and per capita figures they found “are all over the place” in the West.

“We’re shocked there’s not something nationally that says ‘this is how you should calculate per capita use,’” he said. “There’s not even a regionwide regulation on how you calculate it.”

How Utah previously compared

The U.S. Geological Survey issues a report every five years that offers some of the most comprehensive state-by-state analyses of water use. The most recent study, which distilled data from 2015, ranked Utah as No. 2 in the nation for per-person domestic water use, behind Idaho.

Representatives from USGS were not available for an interview.

Residents of the Beehive State used 169 gallons each day, the USGS report found, which included its vast network of largely unmetered secondary connections. If commercial and industrial connections are also factored in, per capita use jumps to 256 gallons per day, according to 2020 data reported by the Utah Division of Water Resources. In northern Utah, Paxman said, the numbers come in closer to 222 gallons per day.

But, again, those numbers are based on water delivered, not on the amount of water depleted.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water from a leak in a sprinkler system in Summerlin, a community in the Las Vegas Valley, Nevada on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

“We’ve heard [Laramie, Wyom.] is around 90 gallons per capita per day, which is absolutely ridiculous,” Paxman said. “That’s barely over indoor water use.”

(The City of Laramie reports on its website that its average use per person in 2020 was 141 gallons per day.)

Utah also has a different climate than some regions it’s held up against — Layton residents only irrigate outdoors in the summer and fall months, for example, while residents of Las Vegas water their turf year-round. And hotter climates lose a lot more water to evaporation, making turf removal a much more cost-effective option for those districts, Paxman said.

Criticism from water watchdogs

Still, a 2015 legislative audit found Utah’s own data collection on local water use had “significant inaccuracies” and was unreliable. And it’s clear some water providers in the arid West have stricter and more aggressive water use policies than those found in Utah.

Some lobbyists claim the draft bill “muddles the message” about conservation at a time when the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem sits on the brink due to water shortages, and signs of water wars are to flaring up across the West.

“There is the potential that ... subtracting return flows from the calculation will result in a disincentive for conservation,” Steve Erickson, a board member of Great Basin Water Network, told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee Wednesday.

Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, shared concerns with the Legislative Water Development Commission Tuesday. He worried that the bill doesn’t account for water in secondary systems that’s lost to leaks.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sprinklers run at Reservoir Park in the middle of the afternoon heat during peak evaporations times on Monday afternoon, July 19, 2021, near the University of Utah campus.

“If we really care about water for the Great Salt Lake,” Frankel said, “we need to know how much water is being wasted.”

Both Frankel and Erickson knocked the “gag order” in the draft bill blocking agencies from computing and publishing statewide consumptive water use information.

“I agree there are challenges with the calculations,” Frankel said, “but I’m not sure whether what we’re concerned about is the discussion and ... being criticized for wasting water, or what we’re concerned about is whether we don’t want to identify how we’re wasting water.”

Regardless of the draft bill’s fate, it appears the era of cheap and unfettered water use in Utah is coming to a close.

Lawmakers funneled millions into a program earlier this year that requires meters on most secondary connections in the state by 2030. That likely means Utahns will start seeing bills for the amount of water they use outdoors, instead of irrigating as much as they want and only paying a flat fee buried in their property tax bills.

Studies have shown that simply providing customers with information about their use, even without an increased charge, reduces watering by as much as 40%.