SANDY — For years, water managers have urged residents of desert Utah to stop taking water for granted and start conserving.
This year, a drier-than-expected winter has city and utility officials issuing a dire warning: Conservation could be mandatory.
"There's no doubt there will be mandatory restrictions," LeRoy Hooton, Salt Lake City's public utilities director, said following a meeting of Utah water managers Wednesday.
In Salt Lake City's service area, which includes city limits and much of the east side of Salt Lake County, there is already a financial incentive to conserve whereby water costs an average of 54 percent more per gallon during the summer than during the winter. And the increased price has encouraged residents to use less, Hooton said.
"But we need to take the next step," he added.
That could come in the form of brown lawns this summer when no outside watering is allowed from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., something Hooton plans to recommend to Mayor Rocky Anderson.
Water restrictions have worked in northern Utah counties where lawn watering is also banned during the day.
"We've saved 20 percent of our secondary water," said Ivan Flint, general manager for Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. "This year we'll enforce that more strictly."
Terrell Grimley, general manager of Ogden River Water Users Association, is confident conservation can work. Last year, lawn watering restrictions resulted in leftover water. "People took conservation to heart," he added.
That's exactly what water managers are hoping for given this year's parched predictions.
"We have a real task ahead of us this year," said Nick Sefakis, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake & Sandy. "Conservation is going to be critical."
At issue is not much snow in the mountains, but also little moisture in the soil. That means the ground will soak up much of this year's runoff.
The sparse snowpack conditions in northern Utah have prompted the Provo River Water Users Association to release only 60,000 acre-feet of water this year from Deer Creek Reservoir compared to the usual distribution of 100,000 acre feet. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons of water, or the amount of water a family of four consumes in a given year.)
"We didn't restrict the allotment last year," said Keith Denos, general manager of Provo River Water Users Association. "(But) we're below the historic minimum for this time of year."
As a result, water districts will be scrambling for water come summer.
There is a bright side. Central Utah Water Conservancy District has additional water to sell to cities, but it will be expensive.
"We'll have to pass our costs along to the cities," said Sefakis.
Still, it is welcome news for Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, a wholesaler whose 20 member retail agencies serve a population of about 800,000 people.
"We'll take it no matter what it costs," said David Ovard, Jordan Valley's general manager. He will be meeting next week with cities to distribute water allotments.
And Ovard said the district's strategy will emphasize water conservation.
"At this point, we'll ask for voluntary water conservation," he added, calling on residents to repair leaky faucets and broken water pipes. "Then we'll wait and evaluate things."