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Governor's team looks to shore up Utah's water future

SALT LAKE CITY — A four-year effort to devise a blueprint for Utah's water future into 2060 is built around 11 broad recommendations released Thursday that will find their way to the governor's desk.

But before Utah Gov. Gary Herbert gets the final product from his State Water Strategy Advisory Team, the public will have another chance to weigh in on the draft report through late June.

“The future of water in Utah is immensely complex, and it will affect everyone in more ways than we realize,” said Warren Peterson, one of the chairmen of the 41-member volunteer team.

Peterson added that the team reached "some consensus" on how to address that complexity, but more public input is being sought.

In addition to being able to weigh in online through June 26, a public comment meeting will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. June 28 in the State Office Building's auditorium, directly behind the state Capitol.

Herbert convened the team in 2013 — the year of the state's first water summit — and directed them to host multiple listening sessions throughout Utah to get a picture of both urban and rural water challenges.

Utah is in the unenviable position of being the second driest state in the nation, struggling with multiple years of drought that renewed calls for more emphasis on water conservation and new approaches to water use data collecting and the need to boost money for water infrastructure repairs.

In its research, Herbert's team found plenty of room for improvement to ensure the state has a robust, clean water supply into 2060 — when its population is expected to double.

With two-thirds of Utah's urban water supply used on lawn and gardens, the draft report notes a compelling need to conduct more education on water conservation for the general public and also urged metering for secondary water systems.

Water use data needs to be more readily available, and the state should work with partners in the pursuit of a public education center for water.

Multiple agencies like the state and federal government offer a bevy of information on water-related topics, but there isn't a central clearinghouse where that information is easily navigable.

The state, too, is staring at $16 billion in costs to replace and repair existing infrastructure, with many pipelines, catch basins and other features of water delivery systems already at the end of their "engineering" life.

A recommendation from the report says Utah leaders should consider expanding the scope and budgets of water conservation, construction and development funds under the purview of the Utah water resources board. Its grants and loans help finance water infrastructure and conservation efforts throughout the state.

Utah, too, should accelerate its efforts to adjudicate existing water rights, engage in more aggressive water audits to determine what is being used where and consider modernizing the state's water law policies where they inhibit water conservation rather than incentivize the practice.

While the state has already met a voluntary water conservation goal of reducing consumption by 25 percent by 2025, the team's report suggests conservation goals could be revisited more frequently and tailored to meet different regions within the state, with water saving plans aimed at basins or devised for specific watersheds.

Herbert's team found a number of areas where laws related to water use — including municipal zoning ordinances — are ripe for change.

Water districts, they note, make revenue off the sale of water, which by default encourages more use. The districts also are constrained from building up reserve accounts to pay for long-term needs — constraints that need to be adjusted.

The team said for Utah to have an ample and good quality water supply, water district managers should play a more "engaged and influential" role in municipal planning — such as new development — and where appropriate, the state should consider enlarging reservoirs for storage.

The report advises Utah to pursue new regional water projects — there are two on the board like the Lake Powell Pipeline and a plan to tap the Bear River — but before they are built, the state should ensure it's doing what it can to stretch current water supplies and has looked at all alternatives.

Envision Utah facilitated the process, including the release of the report.