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Conserving water is key to Utah’s future

Repair crews respond to a water main break between Wasatch Boulevard and I-125 east in Millcreek on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. The issue of water infrastructure, water delivery area and fair treatment of ratepayers has caught Utah lawmakers’ attention.
Repair crews respond to a water main break between Wasatch Boulevard and I-125 east in Millcreek on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. The issue of water infrastructure, water delivery area and fair treatment of ratepayers has caught Utah lawmakers’ attention.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

With booming population growth, Utah isn’t ever going to run out of people. But all those people need water, and we could see water shortages in the relatively near future unless we take the right steps today.

As the nation’s second-driest state, Utah has never enjoyed an abundance of water. But thanks, in part, to farsighted leaders who built water reclamation projects to store winter runoff in reservoirs across the state, we’ve had sufficient water for our needs.

However, the easy and relatively inexpensive water projects were all completed long ago. Providing water for Utah’s future generations will require more than building new dams. It will require aggressive conservation and efficiency initiatives, pricing structures that encourage smart water use, and deployment of advanced technologies and analytics to provide accurate data in water management.

None of this is easy. There are no simple, quick or cheap solutions. And climate change may exacerbate the challenge. However, Utah’s water managers and state and local leaders are working hard to ensure that when future Utahns turn a tap, clean water will flow.

Much is at stake. Without sufficient water, businesses and jobs will go elsewhere, the agricultural and homebuilding industries will suffer, and our enviable quality of life will deteriorate.

Thus, we all have a stake in ensuring sufficient clean water for future generations. Taking the right steps now, including accepting some relatively small inconveniences and modestly higher water costs, will ensure sufficient water long into the future.

A good balance is needed and a variety of large and small solutions must be pursued. Utah’s Division of Water Resources is recommending a plan to reduce municipal water use by 16% over the next decade, averaged across the state. Some interest groups say those goals are not aggressive enough, while some local water managers say the goals will be difficult to reach.

The state plan seems reasonable and achievable. It won’t entirely solve Utah’s long-term water challenges, but it will be an important step forward and help us all focus more on water conservation.

Changes in water rates and taxation that make water prices more market-based must also be considered. In general, it makes sense to use graduated water rates that charge more for higher water use to encourage conservation. It also makes sense to mostly use water rates to pay for water, rather than property taxes that might mask the true costs.

However, these are complex issues and the generalities don’t apply in every circumstance. The Utah Foundation is producing an excellent series of studies on water rates and costs that demonstrate the complexity of the matter.

“Generally speaking,” says the Utah Foundation study, “conservation is the cheapest way to meet demand for water, followed by agricultural conversion. Building new infrastructure is far more expensive.”

Using new technologies to produce data detailing exactly how water is being used and how much is being wasted can also be part of the solution.

The American Water Works Association, Intermountain Section, is suggesting a legislative appropriation of $1.5 million over two years, and $300,000 annually, to implement software that will help water districts bill accurately for water use, indicate water waste from leaky pipes, and help districts efficiently manage their water delivery systems.

Pilot projects in several Utah municipal water systems have shown the value of good water data. For example, in Taylorsville-Bennion, nonrevenue water losses in a year totaled 1,055 acre feet valued at $295,000. In Lehi, 878 acre-feet of water was lost with a value of $171,540.

The AWWA program seems like a good investment to modernize water accounting systems, ensure reliable data, and create consistent procedures.

Utah’s water challenges are great. But with forward-looking leadership, increased education and public awareness, and concrete conservation incentives, I am confident sufficient water can be provided for future generations.

A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.