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Dixie drought festers despite recent rains

ST. GEORGE — It rained over southern Utah's parched desert towns this weekend, but it didn't rain enough, said area water managers.

"The Virgin River is running very low," said Ron Thompson, manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which supplies water for much of the county.

"We are getting as much storage as we can in Quail Creek Reservoir right now. It's imperative we get it there within the next six weeks. We need another 12 feet in the lake for our gravity- flow pumps to work." Washington County is the driest county in a state that's ranked as the second driest in the nation, Thompson said on Saturday to a group of attorneys attending the Utah State Bar Association convention at the Dixie Center in St. George. Thompson's presentation centered on water laws and how they affect urban growth in southern Utah.

"We were at 42 percent of normal snow pack this morning," said Thompson, who is also an attorney. "It went down from 52 percent."

A bright spot in the dismal water year, said Thompson, is the conservancy district's decision to transfer water from Quail Creek to the county's newest reservoir, Sand Hollow, in an effort to save water for later use.

"We have a 40-foot rise in the ground water table in Sand Hollow," he said. "What's going on in the ground right now is more important than what's going on above the ground."

So far this year, Thompson reminded his audience, there hasn't been much rain and that's a big concern when you consider the county's phenomenal growth patterns, he said.

"Since 1965, this county has not experienced a single year without growth and net in-migration," said Thompson. Around 100,000 people live in Washington County right now, and population experts predict that number to double or even triple within the next 30 years, he said.

But there aren't just more and more people who need water there's also the desert tortoise and a handful of endangered fish that need water to survive, Thompson points out.

"In order to meet the biological needs of the endangered species, we have to sustain a certain stream flow in the Virgin River," he said. Right now, the Virgin River is running at about one-fourth the traditional stream flow one usually records during the area's blistering summer months, Thompson noted.

Santa Clara, a growing city on the west side of St. George, may not be able to provide irrigation water to its farmers unless the situation changes significantly, he said.

"Normally, our reservoir storage is in the 60 to 80 percent range. It's less than 25 percent today," Thompson said.

Which brings everyone, from city councils to school children, to the subject of water conservation and, finally, rising water rates. Most cities in Washington County have adopted new water rates that penalize those who use more than a designated amount.

"We think we have what is a good supply of water," said Barry Barnum, St. George water services director. "We have a peak of 40 million gallons per day and we're projecting a demand for the same amount."

But whether that amount of water will be enough to last this summer is up to the city's water users — and the unknown, Barnum said.

"If anything happens to any of our sources or distribution systems, we could be in trouble really quickly," he said.

On Thursday the St. George city council will consider adoption of anew policy regulating water use and rates during times of drought. Those who use more than an allotted amount will pay more for the privilege; although some council members and others say the increase is so minor it isn't much of deterrence.

"What can you buy 1,000 of for less than $3?" asked Thompson. "I don't think you can get there (conservation goals) alone with rates."

People were asked to conserve water on a voluntary basis last year, and managed to cut back an overall 10 percent. But Thompson said he's hoping for a much better savings rate this year. The water conservancy district supports an ordinance that restricts landscape watering to the hours after 8 p.m. and before 8 a.m. The state's suggestion is to avoid watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

"Our long-term goal is to get a 25 percent reduction, but I think we'll see about 10 percent," said Thompson. "This summer has the potential to be much worse than last year. We had a lot more water in storage last year in the reservoir."

If St. George moves from a voluntary to a mandatory conservation schedule, both Thompson and Barnum are skeptical using an odd/even method would work.

"People who have automatic sprinklers tend to use 55 percent more water than people without sprinklers," said Thompson, adding people seem to use more water on their scheduled day than they normally would without the restriction.

If St. George does enter a mandatory conservation schedule, said Barnum, the city could issue warnings to those who abuse the system. Citations could also follow for those who routinely ignore the city's

conservation ordinance, he said.