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State plunges ahead with water-use study

SALT LAKE CITY — Two local engineering firms are partnering in a $300,000 effort to analyze how the state collects water-use data and how that system can be improved.

It is a data-driven system vulnerable to errors, assumptions and calculations because of the complexity inherent to harnessing information from 475 community water systems across Utah.

Bowen Collins & Associates, a firm in Utah and Idaho, and Hansen, Allen & Luce, based in South Jordan, will look at municipal and industrial water-use information submitted to the state Division of Water Rights for 2015 and compare that with water-use conclusions made by the Utah Division of Water Resources.

The Division of Water Resources comes up with the state's overall water usage, but a 2015 legislative audit slammed the accuracy of the data, citing significant inaccuracies.

The audit found multiple gaps in the system, including:

• Local water managers who are not accountable for submitting accurate data.

• Not enough effort to verify the accuracy of the data once it is received.

• A need to resolve data inconsistencies.

As Utah grapples with meeting the needs of a population that is expected to nearly double by 2060, Gov. Gary Herbert convened a water summit four years ago and ultimately a 41-member strategic advisory committee.

Central in the issue of Utah's management of its water resources — as the nation's second-driest state — is its ability to project water needs in the decades to come.

Two controversial water development projects sanctioned by the state — the Lake Powell pipeline and plans to divert water from the Bear River — are costly and come with environmental ramifications.

In legislation passed and then amended in 2016, the Legislature directed state agencies to establish criteria for better water data and data collecting, and third-party verification of that data. Herbert has made clear those steps are a prerequisite to the large-scale development of any additional water resources.

Rachel Shilton, river basin planning section manager with the Division of Water Resources, said tracking water-use data becomes a series of complicated calculations if water systems don't report their usage.

In the Bear River basin, a small community there has not reported data since 2002, according to state records. Other communities don't break out categories of water use, rely on their own estimates because of broken or lack of meters, or they get the calculations wrong, records show.

"There are a lot of parts to it," Shilton said. "If you are looking at a rural community, there are some users who rely on their own wells. There are some who use community water, or some who get secondary water through canals or have their own valves."

The problem isn't isolated to small communities, she said. Some cities in southwest Salt Lake County, for example, may get water from canals, but those waterways are operated by independent canal companies that may not supply water data.

James Greer, with the Division of Water Rights, said water-use information has been collected in Utah on a voluntary basis since the 1960s.

The division, however, lacked any regulatory teeth to force systems to report. In 2016, the division received additional funding from the Legislature to put a person in the field to work with public water providers to encourage reporting or identify any hurdles to data collection.

Additionally, lawmakers directed the state Division of Drinking Water to develop rules so it can assess points against a water provider should it fail to report usage or fraudulently report.

With enough points, a water system can be deemed unsafe.

Shilton said once the Division of Water Resources receives the analysis, expected sometime in December, it will revisit the 2015 numbers.

Bowen Collins & Associates has done work on multiple local projects, including the $13 million, 17-mile trail within the Provo Reservoir Canal corridor, the cleanup of contaminated groundwater in southwest Salt Lake County and a wetlands project on 900 South.

Hansen, Allen & Luce has completed thousands of studies, designs, master plans, and other projects for clients throughout the Intermountain West during its 40 years of operation, according to the firm's website.