The following informative article appeared in the
Deseret Morning News of September 21, 2003
by Jerry D. Spangler and Donna Kemp Spangler
With five years of drought prompting
massive campaigns to educate Utahns on the virtues of water conservation,
there is a common perception that Utah is running out of water.
Make that a misperception. Utah is a state swimming in water.
In fact, there's water, water everywhere and plenty of it to drink, today, tomorrow and 50 years from now. Utah has enough water to meet the needs of a population several times its current 2.3 million people.
But there's a catch: It's going to get very, very expensive in the years ahead.
"We're not running short of water. We're just running short of cheap water," said Gregory Williams, senior engineer for the Utah Division of Water Resources.
Water officials across the state have launched campaigns to "slow the flow" (the goal is a 25 percent statewide reduction in per capita use by 2050) and to explain the need for new water development (billions of dollars will be needed to build the delivery systems for the next generation of Utahns).
And no one disputes that Utahns will have to change certain habits in the years ahead to make sure clean water is flowing through new high-efficiency taps.
Utahns currently use 321 gallons per person per day, or more water per person than any other state in the nation except Nevada.
The goal and the state's long-term water strategy hinges on it happening is that water conservation will drop the daily water use to 240 gallons per person per day, or roughly the average of all states in the Rocky Mountain region. But it would mean instead of new water development totaling 1 million acre-feet per year, it could be scaled back to 646,000 acre-feet (an acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre to a depth of one foot, or the equivalent to what a family uses in any given year).
If it all sounds confusing, it is, even to seasoned water experts, all of whom use different sets of numbers and different models to come up with their projections. There isn't even agreement on how much water Utahns use (the 321 gallons is a number settled upon by the Utah Division of Water Resources).
The bottom line is Utah has to figure out how it will deliver 646,000 acre-feet more, or about two-thirds more water than the amount being used by Utah households today.
But the key word is "delivery." Water experts say it is the cost of building those delivery systems that is the limiting factor to growth, not a shortage of water.
From the time Brigham Young first entered the Salt Lake Valley more than 150 years ago, Utah decisionmakers decided that water would be owned for the "beneficial use" of all.
As a result, the state owns all the water in the state. Individuals own rights to use the water, and those water rights can be complicated with some users having priority over others.
But when all the fighting is done, the bottom line is the state owns the water, and the state can take the water under eminent domain. Those with water rights would still have to be compensated a fair market value, but there is no inherent right to keep the rights.
With the state owning the water, there are no water "barons" in Utah squeezing customers with inflated prices. In fact, all water districts operate under state laws that mandate they cannot make a profit from water (they can set aside surpluses for future water development).
With Utah's population expected to double to 5 million people by 2050, that long-standing "beneficial use" policy sets the stage for a massive political battle over what constitutes "beneficial use" watering alfalfa or drinking water for cities.
Currently, farmers in Utah use about 4 million acre-feet of water to irrigate 1.5 million acres of crops, mostly alfalfa and other livestock feed. That's roughly four times the amount of water being used by all cities and towns in the state combined.
The state water plan predicts a time when "beneficial use" shifts statewide priorities from farming to the needs of urban residents. And the billion-dollar question water planners now face is if and how agriculture water can be moved from fields to cities.
According to the state water plan, "Agricultural irrigation is and will continue to be the primary use of developed water in Utah."
The Utah Farm Bureau has taken a laissez faire attitude toward the loss of farmland and agricultural water to urban encroachment.
"We don't like to see farmers go out of business because of pressures beyond their control," said Sterling Brown, associate director of public policy for the Utah Farm Bureau. "But if the market dictates he or she goes out of business, and they choose to go out of business, we support that."
In areas along the Wasatch Front, it is a relatively simple process to convert agriculture water to culinary water. Cities already buy out neighboring farmers' water rights and ship the irrigation water to a treatment plant. It happens every year in Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties as subdivisions sprawl over farms and pastures.
Utah was the fourth-fastest-growing state in the nation in 2000, and most of that growth has come at the expense of farmland, said Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture, adding there are no hard numbers for how much farmland is being lost every year.
"There are thousands of acres lost every year," he said.
But there has been no shortage of water for those new homes as what remains of Wasatch Front agriculture water is converted to what water officials call "M&I," or municipal and industrial uses.
It is much harder and much more expensive for water districts to tap into agricultural water in the many rural valleys surrounded by mountains and isolated by canyons. The cost of building pipelines and aqueducts over the Wasatch Mountains is prohibitive, at least in the current water marketplace.
"Economics will determine what water will be developed," Williams said. "Water is a commodity like anything else."
In other words, if the demand is great enough, any source of water becomes developable. Even taking the salt out of the Great Salt Lake is an option if people are willing to pay the price.
"In the big picture, there is an endless supply of water," Williams said. "The limitation is economics."
Agriculture water is only part of the solution. Water officials are looking at three different projects to suck water it owns but is not using from various rivers running through the state.
For the most part, efforts are focused on the roughly 420,000 acre-feet of water going unused down the Green and Colorado rivers, and another 250,000 acre-feet in the Bear River. Another 120,000 acre-feet of water can be developed from other rivers, but this is less likely, given current economics, to make its way to heavily populated areas.
Combined, the 790,000 acre-feet of river water is 87 percent of the 904,000 acre-feet used today by all cities and towns. And it is more than the 646,000 acre-feet of increased water needs projected by 2050.
The stumbling block is money. One proposal calls for building a water pipeline from Lake Powell to the fast-growing St. George area ($310 million), another for building a water pipeline from Flaming Gorge to the Wasatch Front ($300 million) and yet another is pumping water from the Bear River into Willard Bay and then piping it to the Wasatch Front ($260 million).
In all, the state has identified $6 billion in water development projects that could be done. But everything is on hold pending legislative decisions on who will pay for the projects and how.
Zack Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council and Utah's most vocal advocate of water conservation, agrees the perception that Utah is running out of water is a "myth." But he diverges from state water planners when it comes to how to meet future demands, instead criticizing the lack of foresight in state policy that has focused on supply rather than demand.
"We need to look at a market-based system," Frankel says. "As the price of water increases, naturally what happens is that demand goes down."
And with the right pricing system, Utahns would conserve far more than the 25 percent stated in state conservation goals, and it just might eliminate the need for costly developments like pipeline projects.
Frankel isn't the only voice calling for radical revisions in state water policy. Some lawmakers have joined the chorus, calling it unfair that water rates are kept artificially low through general property and sales taxes paid by all.
And Gov. Mike Leavitt called for changes in how water projects are funded, pushing efforts to remove tax subsidies for water development, thereby encouraging more conservation as the true price of water is reflected in water rates. Leavitt has since backed off of water-funding reforms in the face of legislative opposition, mostly from rural interests.
The Utah Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, released a report last year showing Utahns pay far less for water than other Western cities often less than half.
Based on the Utah Foundation study, Salt Lake City residents had the third cheapest water rates in the West, about $1.04 per 1,000 gallons of water. Provo residents paid only 75 cents, or tied with Sacramento for last among the 13 cities considered.
By comparison, folks in Reno pay $3.39 per 1,000 gallons. And even in rain-soaked Seattle, people pay $2.30 per 1,000 gallons (see chart).
Frankel does not believe taking water away from agriculture is the answer. At least farmers are producing a product of value, he said.
And in addition to food and fiber, farms also contribute to improved landscapes and wildlife habitat, Brown adds.
"But we're just wasting it," Frankel said of urban areas. "And now we are trying to provide water for future Utahns at the cheapest possible price" by subsidizing water development with property and sales taxes.
It is unlikely lawmakers will end those tax subsidies. In fact, a legislative tax force looking at how to fund water projects is looking at ways to increase the subsidies, recommending a sales-tax hike to pay for water projects. Currently, 1/16th of a percent of sales taxes goes into a water development fund, or about $17 million a year.
"I know it's a sensitive issue, but if we're really serious about this, we need a long-term solution to the $5 billion problem," said Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, and co-chairman of the State Water Development Commission.