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Can Utah's water supply keep up with its booming population?

Water flows over the spillway at the East Canyon Dam on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Utah reservoirs are full or near full for the first time in years.
FILE - Water flows over the spillway at the East Canyon State Park dam on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Utah State University professor Michelle Baker presented her research on Utah water's quality, quantity and efficiency in Salt Lake City.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Will Utah’s water supply catch up with the state's rising population, expected to double by 2065?

It was one of the several questions posed at Utah State University’s Research Landscapes series focused on Utah's waterscapes. The event Tuesday at the O.C. Tanner headquarters in Salt Lake City attracted a mix of state and local government officials, businesses leaders, developers and nonprofit organizations.

Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, said now is a great point in time to reflect on Utah’s water, as he remembers a time when talking about water would invoke ridicule or hostility.

FILE - Water flows in Big Cottonwood Creek in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, May 10, 2019.
FILE - Water flows in Big Cottonwood Creek in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, May 10, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

"It's amazing to think now, how much that conversation has changed, but our policy hasn't changed," he said.

He said the state’s water scarcity “always has been, and always will be” a problem due to limited supply and an “ever-increasing” demand.

Historically, he said, Utah’s snowpack and the West’s era of dam building has helped Utah to capture water in times of plenty and release in times of scarcity.

“That really helped us for many, many years,” he said. “We no longer can rely on snowpack, the era of big building dam is over, the question is, what is the next big thing that could help us grow and thrive into the future?” he said.

“We have reliable, high-quality, cheap water today, but we can’t guarantee it tomorrow.”

In 2017, the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute projected that Utah’s population is expected to double by 2065.

While Hawkes admits he might not have the answers, he knows that “to have innovation we need to have good information.”

“The biggest challenge we face as policymakers is lack of good, high-quality information,” he said.

And that’s where Michelle Baker, an associate dean and professor of biology at USU, and her research come into play to help answer those questions.

Baker and her student research group focus on understanding how water links landforms and people, and how it influences freshwater ecosystems.

Water flows over the spillway at the East Canyon Dam on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Utah reservoirs are full or near full for the first time in years.
FILE - Water flows over the spillway at the East Canyon State Park dam on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

At Tuesday's presentation, she called Utah’s mountain water towers “critical icons” to the state’s identity.

She noted that tourism isn’t the only industry in Utah fueled by water. Gas and oil development, agriculture and high-tech industries require a clean water supply.

“Our water supply and the demand for that water have a mismatch,” Baker said. “Second to Nevada, Utah is the driest state in the nation and climate change is not something that we can deny.”

According to Baker, Utah’s water consumption is among the highest in the nation, as 160-170 gallons of water are used per person each day, mostly to support agricultural industries. She added that Utahns pay less than a penny per gallon, making it the second-lowest water per gallon rate in the nation.

Baker attributes Utah’s population boom to having a young population compared to the rest of the nation, leading to more births than deaths, as well as people moving to Utah attracted by the growing tech industry.

USU researchers are focusing their efforts on three areas such as water’s quantity, quality and efficiency, she said.

Baker shared research by another USU professor, Robert Gillies, who studied Utah's water quantity. His study found a decrease in snow depth and a substantial decrease in areas covered by snow.

Meanwhile, over the last 50 to 60 years, the amount of precipitation during the winter has increased by 9 percent, Baker noted.

"How do we get 9 percent more precipitation and less snow in the winter? More of that precipitation that's coming is rain, and that's not how our mountain water towers are supposed to work," she said.

She said Utah is not alone in a decrease in snowpack, as states across the mountain west like California have experienced similar conditions.

"We need to expect that our water towers will be less efficient at storing water and snow, and we need to plan for that much more carefully," she said.

Utah's airsheds and watersheds are linked, she said, as evidenced when nitrogen and phosphorus pollution contribute to Utah Lake's toxic algal blooms, a problem that's been ongoing for four consecutive years.

Last year, she said 37 states reported a total of 255 harmful algal blooms.

Most surprisingly, one of Baker's graduate student researchers studied pharmaceutical pollution in Red Butte Creek streams and found traces of caffeine, methamphetamines, nicotine, Tylenol and amphetamine.

Originating from Red Butte Canyon, the stream flows through the University of Utah campus and eventually becomes part of a storm drain system at Liberty Park.

"In order to put filthy water to reuse, we need to know what, if any, risks there are," she said. "To restore or improve water quality we really need to know the flow pass (the) water takes in the system so that we can identify the sources and potentially mediate or remove (the risks)."

When it comes to using water more efficiently, Baker said the most water could be saved in agriculture uses, like converting from flood irrigation to sprinklers, using piping instead of canals and scheduling specific days when water could be applied to fields.

Former assistant director and general counsel for the Western States Water Council and current partner at Smith Hartvigsen, Nathan Bracken, recommended attendees at Tuesday's discussion should become as familiar with their water quality as they are with public roads.

Bracken said there is no "silver bullet" that will solve Utah's multifaceted water problems and that a "multitude" of methods will need to be used.

"If we don't act, if we don't collaborate and if we don't work on this challenge, we're going to pay an astronomical amount more because we're going to be responding to crisis rather than being proactive," he said.

Baker said she hopes attendees left with a better understanding of the complexities of Utah's water system and the fragility of mountain water towers.

The next event from the USU Research Landscapes series will take place Oct. 1 and will focus on USU sociology professor Courtney Flint’s research on the social dynamics of environmental issues.