As Utah's water needs grow with a rising population, the temptation is to siphon water from the state's largest water user, agriculture. Can farmlands survive a growing urban thirst? This is another story in our ongoing series, Follow the Flow.
Rex Larsen ratchets down bails of straw on his flatbed truck, ready to take to market, here in this community called Leland, on the southern edge of Utah's Wasatch front. "My Great grandfather was one of the first to farm at this area. Where we live right here, it was originally called the New Survey," he says.
Larsen grows corn, barley, but mostly alfalfa which is used to make hay to feed horses and cattle. And to do it he uses a lot of water. His heirloom water right – passed down from his great grandfather - comes from Strawberry Reservoir and is channeled nearly 50 miles down Spanish Fork Canyon through a network of culverts and canals.
"When they were able to get the additional water from the Strawberry project and dig the tunnels through the mountains to bring the water this direction, all of this land here was surveyed," says Larsen. "They put in drains to keep the water table low enough. It's turned into beautiful farm ground from doing that."
Every spring, Larsen says different canal companies disperse the water to him and other farmers in the area, many of whom also flood their fields to grow alfalfa. The plant has deep taproots that suck up the water, and it grows fast so Larsen says he can harvest a new crop three or four times a year, bail it, and truck it away to market.
Larsen has farmed these 300 acres of farmland here that surrounds his home since the late '70s. In that time he says he's watched plenty of neighboring farmland vanish under new homes, roads, and traffic.
"There are some areas closer to Spanish Fork that have started to develop, and we have three new subdivisions in our community here. So that's changing a little. Nice people moving in. It's fun to meet them but it's different than it was."
So far the new urban neighbors aren't disturbing his life's work. But with Utah's population set to add another 2.5 million people in the next 35 years, that could all change.
Sterling Brown with the Utah Farm Bureau says almost everyone understands that some of the water needed for new homes, parks, schools, and businesses will have to come from agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the state's developed water supply.
"For a hundred plus years, and certainly today, ag [agriculture] provides the bank for water growth," says Brown. "And as that growth continues to come to Utah, cities and counties and industries and others will increasingly have to go to the farmer. And in a willing buyer, willing seller – we hope – arrangement, convert that ag water that is growing our food and fiber, and convert it to industry, or municipal, or other needs."
Yet others claim that with conversation measures, future urbanization will have little impact on agriculture's water supply. If urban water use doubles from roughly 15 percent to 30 percent as predicted, officials estimate agriculture will still have 65 to 70 percent of the state's water available to them. What's more, according to Zach Frankel with the Utah Rivers Council, there may be little need for agriculture to give up water if farmers take measures to use less of it.
"As you urbanize these ag lands, especially irrigated ag lands, you actually create a surplus of water because you're not irrigating your streets and parking lots, you're not irrigating the rooftops. You're only irrigating the section of lawns that is the new landscape. And those lawns added together are a small percentage of the total land mass.
But it has been hard for some to even discuss the topic, since in some circles, the mere mention that cities may take over water that's historically been used for growing crops, is taboo. Doug Jackson-Smith researches the sociology of agriculture at Utah State University.
"Most of the conversation I hear about meeting future water needs is focused on finding new sources of water," says Jackson-Smith. "Certainly conservation is a huge piece of that strategy because it reduces the future demand that we're going to have. I anticipate we'll be using water a lot more efficiently as urban people in the future. But not many of those conversations have been open to talking about ways to incorporate agricultural water into that solution."
In theory, diverting agricultural water to a growing urban population can be done without harming agriculture if farmers can free up water by using it more efficiently. The problem is, there's no incentive to conserve because Utah's century-old water laws punish those who do so. Jackson-Smith says if you don't use your full water right, you give up that right and it reverts to the state.
"If you cut your water use by 25 percent in farming, you don't get anything back except the benefit of knowing you're using 25 percent less water. Unless that changes, it's hard to imagine how agriculture could be an industry that might find ways to make water more available for serving these different land uses and urban customers that are taking over that landscape."
Utah's current laws, some say, effectively put ownership of water at a premium. Which leads many to hold onto water rights for so long, that they eventually become forgotten.
Tucked back in the trees here just east of a parking lot for Fashion Place Mall in Sandy is an old farming canal still carrying someone's water rights. A remnant of a now vanished farming community. Instead of nourishing the local stream from where it was diverted, this water here travels through a concrete landscape until eventually making its way to the Great Salt Lake. Such canals now dot the urban landscape.
Recently Walt Baker, director of Utah's Department of Water Quality, told state legislators that the state doesn't know how much water could be available from older farms for Utah's growing population. Here's Baker showing lawmakers an overhead image of the Lehi area.
"Where those farms used to be there were a lot of water rights. But guess what! Here's an overlay of those old farms and the city now. There's still lots and lots of water rights in the very same place... As these areas change use, often the water right is abandoned or forgotten and we lose track of the use," says Baker. "It wasn't even a state law until this last year that county recorders had to keep a record of water rights. But this causes us to tell you, there is a need for adjudication."
Yet, Sterling Brown, with the Utah Farm Bureau, say there is little money for adjudication to determine exactly how much water could be available from converting old, and perhaps some current agricultural water rights to urban use.
"That adjudication process is essential to meeting Utah's water demands," says Brown. "We need to know how much water we have, where it's being used, when it's being used, and who's using it. Those are some fundamental questions. And those are answered through the adjudication process. That's the good news. The bad news is there's only limited dollars to fund that adjudication process. It's going currently at a snail's pace. And that process isn't keeping up with the demand."
While figuring out just how much water there is currently to go around, Jackson-Smith says Utah should consider mechanisms that work for other states, like water banking. Using water banks, water right holders can retain their rights, but are financially rewarded for conserving, while other parties can apply for new uses for that water.
"Looking at the future for Utah... there might be ways to work with agriculture to come up with solutions that hold agriculture harmless – both financially and in terms of producing what they need – and incentivize smart changes to improve efficiencies of uses in exchange for compensation that makes it worthwhile," says Jackson-Smith.
Reconfiguring water laws, conserving, and re-evaluating existing water rights are all approaches to preserving agriculture while still making sure there's enough water for everyone. But Frankel says if agriculture and urbanization can't find a middle ground soon, it could be at the expense of a way of life we take for granted.
"The Wasatch Front's growth is squeezing farmers out of business all along the Wasatch Front," says Frankel. "And the question must be asked, at what point do we not want Utah farming. There are a lot of concerns about having to truck all of our food in from outside of Utah. Clearly that's not really in anybody's best interest."
Back at Rex Larsen's farm, Larsen gazes out at the rush hour traffic on the highway. For now, he's using his water to grow his crops as he sees fit. But he says he has mixed emotions about the future.
"Certainly, I don't want to be the last generation, but that may happen because of development, because of encroachment. And the fact that no one wants to take over for me," says Larsen. He adds, "I think as long as I'm healthy and can keep farming we'll keep doing that. And if something else changes, we'll analyze that when it comes."
This is the latest story in an ongoing series by Explore Utah Science on research to maintain and protect Utah's critical water resources. The "Follow the Flow" series is made possible by iUTAH, a National Science Foundation–funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.