How Do You Find Water in the Desert? Southern Utah Faces Tough Choices

11 December 2014
Published in Environment
Written by  Ross Chambless
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Wikimedia commons--Sean Shebs Wikimedia commons--Sean Shebs

How will Utah deal with increased demand for water in the future? Build more infrastructure, conserve, or both? That debate is now taking place in southern Utah. Ross Chambless has the latest story in our "Follow the Flow" series.

Utah legislators and Central Utah Water Conservancy District staff recently toured some of the reservoirs, pipelines, and tunnels that have nourished Utah's cities of 3 million people over the last half century. The Central Utah Water Project was an ambitious federally funded project to divert water from the upper basin of the Colorado River to the Wasatch Front. It cost over $3 billion and took 50 years to complete. But it now delivers about 82 billion gallons of water annually for farming and municipal and industrial users.

Rich Tullis, an Assistant General manager with the Water Conservation District, was the tour guide speaking to the group atop the Jordanelle Dam, near Heber, Utah.

"When it came online, it first filled in 1997. And all of our delivery contracts started in 2008. It was just in the nick of time. Just in the nick of time. Without this reservoir here, there would be massive, massive shortages in Salt Lake, Utah counties now."

Forecasters tell lawmakers that Utah will need to find even more water to meet the needs of the state's growing population. It's expected that by 2040 Utah will need to make room for another 2.5 million people. State planners say the first swelling populace that may exhaust its water supply is Utah's Dixie in this dry, southwest part of the state — also a popular vacation destination.

St. George and other cities in this red rock region rely solely on the Virgin River watershed for water to drink and to maintain a golfer's paradise. The region's population – now around 150,000 - has tripled since 1990. Yet, people here consume about 270 gallons per person, per day – an average that's higher than most other cities in the American Southwest. By comparison, Phoenix – which averages the same amount of annual rainfall but hotter temperatures – consumes 184 gallons per person, per day.

"We expect that we just have to cut back to what a reasonable use is in order to make it into the future," says Eric Millis, Director of Utah's Division of Water Resources.

He says conservation programs have already helped Washington County to surpass its goal to cut consumption by 25 percent from 2000 to 2025. But adds that this and other measures won't be enough to meet demands of the future population. That's why in 2006 the Utah legislature directed his agency to begin developing a plan for a Lake Powell pipeline to divert more water from the Colorado River.

"If you look at Washington County's water supply, the project we're looking at is being needed by 2023. They're getting close to the limit of their developed supply," says Millis. "They've got a few projects they could build that could help. They'll have water reuse, the conversion of agricultural water. They'll have those sorts of things that are built into our projects of the supply. But they still need this Lake Powell pipeline, we believe."

The pipeline is estimated to cost over a billion dollars, to carry 28 billion gallons of water 139 miles to residents in Washington and Kane Counties. But others question the entire notion that St. George is running out of water.

"My friends... (laughing), that's not a water shortage. That's playing golf in the wrong place."

Dan McCool is a professor of political science at the University of Utah, and obviously a pipeline critic. The proposal has pit pipeline proponents against people who think Dixie residents should live within their means. McCool points out that water shortages in California and Nevada indicate that the actual supply of Colorado River water is much less than what was allocated to states over 90 years ago. And climate change is making a bad problem even worse.

"All the models predict that Lake Powell will effectively dry up and go to dead pool sometime in this century. Probably by 2040 or 2050," says McCool. "So when St. George says we'll need that water in about 2020, well, that's just about the worst possible time to build a pipeline. And whenever they say it'll cost a billion dollars, a good rule of thumb on water projects is it will cost twice as much as what they tell you. Spend two to three billion dollars for a pipeline from a reservoir that's projected to go dry. Does that sound like a sound investment of the taxpayers money?"

With the Federal government now 17.5 trillion dollars in debt, and little hope of action from Congress, McCool says the era of big Federally-funded water projects is over. That means all Utahns will have to foot the bill. Still, he says Utah policymakers need to address a more fundamental issue.

"You can't have infinite growth in a desert. So when they say we need to divert all the rivers for the next three million people to show up. Well then, what about the three million after that, and the 10 million after that, and the 300 million after that? You can't do it," says McCool. "The problems of finite growth are now obvious to the city of Las Vegas. And it needs to become obvious to the city of St. George. St. George cannot have three million people in it. It can't handle it. There is no water," he adds.

Water Resources director Eric Millis says the state is only looking as far as 2060. And by then, he says, Washington County could have as many as 600,000 people.

"That's quadrupling the population," says Millis. "You could say, well, can't we just conserve our way into the future and not build the Lake Powell pipeline? Well, here's what happens in my mind. You've got four times the population with a given water supply. You reduce your water use by 75 percent, is the only way I think that 'conservation only' option could work, and still sustain that population. So you get down to the point where you've really just met the needs for indoor use, and absolutely no water for outdoor use."

But some disagree with even the most basic of these conclusions, including the assumption that people in the future will use as much water per person as we do now. Research by the Pacific Institute, a science-based think tank, found that from 1990 to 2008 other arid regions such as Southern Nevada, Phoenix, and Albuquerque actually delivered less water despite significant population growth. The U.S. Geological Survey also found the same pattern nationally.

In 2013, the group Western Resources Advocates submitted an alternative proposal. They argued that Washington County's population forecasts are inflated, and the County could meet all its future supply needs by 2060 with conservation, water reuse, and agricultural transfers for as little as one-third the cost of the pipeline. Key to their plan is getting Washington County to reduce per capita water use by one percent every year through 2060—a 40 percent total reduction.

"To expect people to reduce at one percent a year is not asking very much," says Professor Johanna Endter-Wada, who researches water conservation at Utah State University.

She says along with appropriate landscaping, analytical tools that gauge whether people are watering appropriately can help fix wasteful behavior. So can implementing conservation-oriented water rate structures that alert customers when they move up to a higher price bracket.

"People are motivated to conserve for a number of different reasons. For a wide variety of reasons: they want to conserve to save on their water bill; they want to conserve to act responsibly; they want to only use their fair share," says Endter-Wada. "They also want to conserve because they know the benefits of conserving water, in terms of keeping water in streams and making it available for other needs is important."

But she adds that part of the conundrum is that water purveyors need to sell water in order to pay for new projects, and for any needed upgrades to aging infrastructure.

"So it creates a situation in which there is a big incentive on their part to use as much water as possible," explains Endter-Wada. "So I think we need to incrementally move forward in the future, so that we aren't developing new supplies that then have the obligation to be sold in order to repay the cost of the infrastructure developed to provide them."

The Lake Powell pipeline may reach completion of a $25 million environmental impact study by the end of 2016. Even though predicting the future is not an exact science, Utahns will have serious decisions to make. Can we reduce per capita water consumption even while maintaining our high quality of life for a growing population? Will it be wise, or even possible, to divert more water from the diminishing Colorado River? How would we pay for it? Can we adapt our cities, our economy and our culture to live with the water we already have? In other words, can we live within our means?

"Follow the Flow" is made possible by iUtah, a National Science Foundation–funded statewide effort to maintain and improve water sustainability.


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