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Herbert convenes summit to map 50-year water strategy for Utah

PROVO — With Utah's urban population expected to double in the next 45 years, water managers across the state are staring at a future that demands smart management of a resource that is likely to become more scarce with each passing decade.

To that end, Gov. Gary Herbert convened his first water summit Wednesday at the Utah Valley Convention Center, the next step in an ambitious statewide effort to map out a 50-year water strategy for Utah.

"We are at a crossroads for our future here," Herbert said, citing the challenge of ensuring adequate water supplies in the face of demand brought by population growth, the outdoor economy and environmental concerns.

The benefits of action, he stressed, "will be for our children and our grandchildren."

The summit included Herbert's announcement of a 38-member team made up of a diverse group of representatives such as elected officials, water district managers, community activists, special interest groups and federal and state policymakers. The task, Herbert said, is to evaluate water management strategies, their potential ramifications and what may fit with a 50-year plan going into the future.

Herbert's summit Wednesday drew on work forged over the summer through eight listening sessions held across the state. During those sessions, more than 800 comments were submitted to six experts Herbert picked to represent conservancy districts, agricultural interests, water rights law, and recreational and environmental issues.

That team gathered input and submitted white papers to Herbert, detailing the challenges in managing Utah's water supplies into the future, as well as summaries of the some of the more dominant themes that emerged in feedback from the public.

Alan Matheson, Herbert's environmental adviser, said comments compiled do not necessarily represent the views of the state or the team participants, and papers submitted by Herbert's team are not meant to be comprehensive but rather an initial blueprint.

Some of the highlights from the papers include:

Most of the Wasatch Front urban infrastructure was built starting in the 1940s and is now experiencing the first period of large-scale replacement needs.

"In fact, water purveyors are now dealing with the reality that over the next 50 years, replacement costs will rival new capacity construction costs," wrote Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. "Statewide costs for repair and replacement of existing infrastructure will exceed $16 billion between now and 2060."

The governor's goal to conserve water by 25 percent by 2025 should be mandatory.

"From an angler's perspective, a reduced stream flow and fewer fish is one thing. A dry stream bed with no fish is something else entirely," wrote Timothy Hawkes, executive director of the Utah Water Project of Trout Unlimited. "Water clearly touches almost a spiritual chord in people and helps define a sense of place and one's attachment to a place," evidenced by comments made by people detailing memories of certain water bodies.

Multiple water development projects, such as the Lake Powell pipeline, the proposed Gooseberry Narrows Dam and the Southern Nevada Water Authority's groundwater pumping plan, elicited strong public reaction, as did the proposed diversion of 53,600 acre-feet of water for a twin reactor nuclear power plant.

Develop a joint operating agreement for the reservoirs in the Weber River watershed.

Explore additional freshwater storage options in or around the Great Salt Lake.

"The people of this state are very sincere, very concerned and very passionate about the preservation of water as our most precious natural resource," wrote Voneene Jorgensen, general manager of the Bear River Water Conservancy District.

In her paper, Jorgensen noted the following public comments:

Development of storage reservoirs and implementation of water banks may be viable solutions to the impacts of climate change and are worthy of discussion.

The state needs to stop encouraging more industry, businesses and people to come to the state that will strain or deplete the water supply.

Population growth is a problem. Slow the growth.

Warren Peterson, a Delta attorney specializing in land, water and agricultural law, noted there were two striking conclusions drawn from the meetings and hundreds of comments: "Utah's people recognize there is an inseparable connection between food production and water; and Utah's people would benefit from a greater understanding of this connection."

Peterson noted that people from diverse interests asked that Utah "protect water that will be needed for agriculture, while others commented that transfers from agriculture would supply future urban water demands."

"Maintaining or increasing Utah's agricultural production requires that we minimize or reverse the movement of water away from agriculture. A decrease in food production at a time of rapid population growth seems imprudent," Peterson wrote.

He also noted that research budgets, especially at universities, seem to be shrinking as the need for greater water knowledge is increasing.

"Utah public and their policymakers need at least basic water resource knowledge before creating water policy, especially as related to agriculture," Peterson wrote. "Water education should be a prerequisite for city planners, council members, county leaders and legislators called on to make such policy decisions."


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