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What a water expert needs you to know about the state of our drought response

The megadrought in the West is not improving. A water expert speaks to what we should know — and do — to help

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Paddleboarders leave the water at the Great Salt Lake State Park.

Paddleboarders leave the water at the Great Salt Lake State Park on Friday, June 10, 2022. Water levels at the Great Salt Lake are continuing to reach record lows due to drought.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, I have learned a thing or two about drought, water planning and Utah’s water supply. The truth is, nobody knows how long a drought will last, but all of us can play a role in how we respond. With summer now upon us and drought messaging filling the news, I wanted to share a few thoughts about water that I wish every Utahn knew.

Where our water comes from

When water supply is short, we are all affected — no matter where the water originates.

During my time at Jordan Valley Water, I have sensed a growing misconception that secondary water — water used for irrigation, gardening and landscaping — doesn’t matter. Many assume that because untreated secondary water is not used for drinking, it is free game for unlimited use.

This could not be further from the truth.

When Utah Lake is unable to supply enough water for secondary users in the Jordan Valley, canal companies can make a call on upstream reservoirs, which dips directly into our drinking water supply. The same can be said for the impact secondary water use can have on reducing water going to the Great Salt Lake. As we find solutions to support Utah’s water future, it is important that we all consider each aspect of the water system and how one choice can affect another.

Drought resiliency and drought reactionary

I have been impressed with the thousands of Utahns who have heeded Gov. Spencer Cox’s call to reduce water use through drought response actions. I have seen yard signs that tout “Yellow is the new green” and have watched local communities enforce a variety of watering restrictions.

Each of these efforts has helped us make it through a very dry year. But drought will always play a role in our water supply, and there are actions we must take to be better prepared for future dry and unpredictable climate patterns that are becoming more and more common in our state.

As a community, becoming drought resilient is critical.

Being drought resilient is different than being drought reactionary. Rather than implementing watering restrictions, a drought resilient community has found ways to reduce its dependency on water — especially during warmer seasons when water supplies are often the most stressed.

Steps toward drought resiliency include replacing inefficient plumbing fixtures, “localscaping” landscapes to remove narrow sections of lawn and switching to drip irrigation in planting beds. These actions reduce dependency on water so that we not only use less water, but also need less.

Land planning

In the summer, Jordan Valley Water delivers about six times more water than in winter months — a difference primarily accounted for in landscape watering. With our state’s booming growth, future land development must consider water supply as a key component. After all, each inefficient landscape installed creates a perpetual commitment to supply water for inefficient use.

Many communities like West Jordan, South Jordan, Herriman, Kearns Metro Township, Bluffdale and West Valley City are already taking important steps toward solutions by adopting water efficiency standards for new development. These standards will result in tremendous water and cost savings while creating a sustainable path for growth within our state.

While none of us may know how long this drought will last, the actions we take today have a significant impact on the choices available to our communities in the future. As a water manager in Utah, I am confident that Utahns will take the steps necessary to preserve our water supplies and to ensure our continued access to this essential resource.

Bart Forsyth is the general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, a wholesale water provider delivering water to nearly a quarter of Utah’s population.