Gary Wockner: Will Utah’s water ‘conservation’ go to fuel more growth?

Water that’s ‘saved’ might not save the Great Salt Lake or Colorado River.

(AP Photo/John Locher) A truck tire once in the water as part of a marina sits on dry ground as water levels have dropped near the Callville Bay Resort & Marina in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, near Boulder City, Nev.

Water conservation is all the rage right now, especially because the federal government has now offered the Southwest U.S. $4 billion for water conservation to try and “save the Colorado River” and its failing reservoirs and hydropower plants at Lakes Powell and Mead downstream in Arizona. Additionally, the Utah Legislature is also bandying around $200 million for some types of water conservation in the state of Utah to protect Great Salt Lake.

Municipalities and water districts that rely on the Colorado River and Great Salt Lake will likely respond to these state and federal incentives. At the same time, it’s important to critically analyze any proposed conservation program – and associated financial payouts – to see what the actual result may be.

For example, will the program really help save the Colorado River or Great Salt Lake? Or will the program simply facilitate more growth in the number of houses and businesses that put a strain on all of Utah’s lakes and rivers?

First, a few months ago, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story about the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline in Southern Utah with the title, “Romney warns St. George development could stop without better water conservation.” The proposed pipeline would be a massive new diversion of water out of the Colorado River to feed and fuel growth in Washington County and its main city, St. George.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney perhaps accidentally hit on a familiar theme in Colorado River politics, that the only way to continue to support the growth economy – including supporting rapid human population growth – is to “conserve” water thereby stretching and spreading that water thinner across the landscape to quench the thirst and lawns of more and more people.

Second, Romney’s words were echoed a few months earlier in the St. George News — the local Washington County newspaper — with a story titled, “St. George Council warns that stalled water supply could put brakes on ‘growth economy’”. The story pulled no punches in pointing out that the growth economy of Washington County is the main economic driver of the entire region. Further, procuring new water is the fuel for that growth.

Finally, in recent months many news stories in the Salt Lake region have focused on the drying of Great Salt Lake and solutions to the problem. The Utah Legislature is proposing to pay farmers to not grow crops, and Gov. Spencer Cox has put a stop to new diversions of water out of the lake. In addition, “water conservation” is proposed to get more money – hundreds of millions of dollars of Utah taxpayer money – to stretch current water supplies farther and thinner.

In the same breath, however, the population around Salt Lake City has exploded, adding 500,000 people from 1982 to 2022, and is expected to keep growing rapidly. The State estimated that in 2021 alone, 61,242 new people moved to Utah. In a recent edition, Salt Lake Magazine reported that Utah’s population is projected to increase by 2.2 million by 2060 and “most of that growth is expected to happen along the Wasatch Front.”

Environmental groups have long advocated for water conservation as a solution to protect rivers and as a sustainable path towards water management. Indeed, water conservation is often seen as a moral imperative in the environmental movement where, in theory, water use by humans can be whittled down to make more water available for the rivers, the environment, and the non-human species that depend on water for survival.

However, what if – as is happening now – water conservation serves to fuel and subsidize more growth in Utah? As such, water conservation may not provide any additional water for rivers or the environment, but actually puts more negative pressure on lakes, rivers, and the environment.

As the federal government’s and the state of Utah’s “money for water conservation” plans play out, keep your eyes on the ball. Will U.S. and Utah taxpayer money be used to save the Colorado River and Great Salt Lake? Or will it be used to simply fuel more growth while our lakes and rivers collapse even faster.

Gary Wockner

Gary Wockner, Ph.D., directs Save The Colorado River which advocates for river protection across the Southwest U.S.