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Poll: Utahns favor incentives for ‘wise’ water use — and tougher penalties for those who aren’t

The north branch of the South Fork of the Ogden River flows into Pineview Reservoir near Huntsville, Weber County.
The north branch of the South Fork of the Ogden River flows into Pineview Reservoir near Huntsville, Weber County, on Monday, June 28, 2021. A majority of Utah residents say they favor financial incentives to have water-wise landscaping to irrigate and tougher penalties for violators who don’t adhere to restrictions as the state struggles through this dangerous and unprecedented drought.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A majority of Utah residents say they favor financial incentives to have water-wise landscaping to irrigate and tougher penalties for violators who don’t adhere to restrictions as the state struggles through this dangerous and unprecedented drought.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of 1,000 registered Utah voters shows that 65% favor both the financial carrot and the financial stick to weather the drought.

As the summer heat stretches on, the polls show some of the ways Utah residents are reducing their water consumption, with 64% who say they are watering less, 47% who say they are spending less time in the shower and another 45% who say they aren’t washing the car as much.

Another 25% have opted for the “if it is yellow let it mellow” mantra and are not flushing toilets as frequently.

However, 32% of respondents in the poll say they have not changed their behavior at all, which goes against repeated calls by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to limit watering in the northern part of the state to two days a week.

Water-efficient landscaping and rockscapes at Merit Medical are pictured in South Jordan on Monday, June 28, 2021.
Water-efficient landscaping and rockscapes at Merit Medical are pictured in South Jordan on Monday, June 28, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Kim Wells, public information officer for the Utah Division of Water Resources, said incentivizing yard transitions to water-wise landscaping has historically happened on the local level.

“For example, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District offers a rip your strip rebate for turf removal. Weber Basin is focusing on secondary water metering,” she said.

“The state currently offers rebates for smart irrigation controllers and low-flow toilets,” she said, but emphasized they are looking for other ways to improve and expand water-saving programs.

Wells said the extreme drought affecting Utah requires additional response by all water users, and especially those quenching their turf.

“Grass is resilient and can survive with only 1 inch of water a month. It won’t be green and will enter dormancy during times of drought and high temperatures and recover when conditions improve. Also, prioritize your watering so you’re watering trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and lastly grass,” she said. “With extreme drought plaguing the state, this is the year when a yellow lawn can be a badge of honor.”

Signs the drought message is being heard

Wells said water providers are reporting decreases in consumption in response to the drought.

Joel Evans, grounds manager for the system of Salt Lake Community College campuses, aggressively went after curtailing consumption this year and details some pretty amazing results.

Overall, irrigated water use has decreased by 31% at the Redwood campus, where there are more than 60 acres of irrigated landscape, with more than 950 individual sprinkler zones.

Irrigation specialists Dan Waters, left, Dan Lloyd and Kenneth Rands check for broken sprinkler heads at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville on Thursday, July 1, 2021. Overall, irrigated water use has decreased by 31% at the Redwood campus, where there are more than 60 acres of irrigated landscape, with more than 950 individual sprinkler zones.
Irrigation specialists Dan Waters, left, Dan Lloyd and Kenneth Rands check for broken sprinkler heads at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville on Thursday, July 1, 2021. Overall, irrigated water use has decreased by 31% at the Redwood campus, where there are more than 60 acres of irrigated landscape, with more than 950 individual sprinkler zones.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Evans directs a staff that constantly has eyeballs on all those sprinkler zones, looking for possible leaks and checking the condition of the turf and other vegetation.

“We really pushed it this year, of course it is a moving target,” Evans said.

The institution dropped irrigation watering times overall by 20%, and Evans is in constant evaluation mode.

“Blue grass will recover pretty easy from drought,” he said, “but it is best to stay off the lawn.”

The college also converted nearly 2.5 acres of high water use turf to low water use plantings through its xeriscape efforts.

In the latest drought update released Wednesday by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the outlook continues to look grim.

Boaters recreate at Pineview Reservoir near Huntsville, Weber County, on Monday, June 28, 2021.
Boaters recreate at Pineview Reservoir near Huntsville, Weber County, on Monday, June 28, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

With less water in our streams and reservoirs, Utah is currently relying on stored water from past years. As a state and as communities and neighborhoods, we can do our part to conserve water by using less on our lawns and landscapes,” said Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Brian Steed. “Our reservoir levels are lower now than they were last fall when the irrigation season was ending. That’s alarming since our highest water use traditionally happens from July through September.”

Twenty-three (21 last week) of Utah’s largest 42 reservoirs are below 55% of available capacity. Stateline Reservoir in northeast Utah and Grantsville Reservoir dropped below 55% this week.

The poll was conducted by Scott Rasmussen June 18-25 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.