The Utah Legislature has buckets and buckets of water bills that contemplate embracing varied water conservation strategies, including how water is measured and used and if municipalities should incorporate water use in their general plans.

There’s also a growing anti-turf sentiment at the Capitol with the successful passage in the House of a measure to restrict how much turf new state government construction can have on its property and what amount of water savings need to be demonstrated over time.

The bill by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, HB121, passed 65-8 and is in the Senate under consideration.

It appears lawmakers and water districts will need to have all sorts of options at their disposal given the dreary news out of a Tuesday briefing on water supplies, how it looks going forward and if storms are on the horizon for Utah.

“It is about as bad as it gets for a 30-day period,” said Glen Merrill, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, reflecting on the last few weeks of bone-dry weather and above-average temperatures.

The monthly briefings bring together federal experts in hydrology, streamflows and reservoirs, as well as local water districts looking at what current conditions they have to survive and what lies ahead.

While there may be a little storm activity next week, Merrill stressed the events are “not game changers.”

Reservoirs sit at just 50% of their capacity across the state on average and low elevation sites are losing snowpack.

Gary Henrie, an engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said Red Fleet, Joe’s Valley and Lake Powell are below their 30-year lows and Pineview in Weber County is at its lowest level in 20 years.

“We need snow.”

The March-to-May forecast doesn’t deliver any better news, with modeling showing Utah likely to be in a similar mode with above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation.

“It is going to come down to the spring,” Merrill cautioned. “It’s just not looking too good from my perspective.”

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The pain of the West-wide drought in 2021

Everyone agrees 2021 was ugly. Very ugly.

Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency in mid-March and issued the call to conserve.

A badge of pride meant sporting a yellow lawn on the cusp of looking dead.

In December, Cox announced his budget priorities, including $500 million for water conservation measures. A big chunk of that is devoted to the implementation of metering of secondary water, which state leaders say could provide the most effective tool at saving water use.

One measure under consideration is a phased-in approach requiring providers of secondary water to have secondary meters installed for pressurized systems. Sponsored by Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, HB242 comes with some steep expenditures, tapping into federal relief programs. A grant system would help cover the costs of systems that convert to the metering.

Peterson stressed how important “every drop of water is” as the West battles a historic drought. Secondary water metering is one of the easiest ways to conserve, he said during a committee hearing Tuesday.

Communities that meter their secondary water see a 40% reduction in usage, Peterson said. If the entire state were to conserve water at that rate, “the equivalent of a Jordanelle Reservoir could be saved.” Under the bill, new commercial, industrial, institutional and residential users would begin metering their secondary water starting in May, and by 2030 secondary water suppliers would be required to install and maintain a meter for every secondary water user. 

The bill is propped up by funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which would cover 70% of the cost to install a meter for the first two years. After 2023, the reimbursement would decline on an annual basis, which Peterson says will incentivize users and suppliers to act quickly. According to the bill, there are 221,000 unmetered secondary water connections in Utah — Peterson says it will cost about $386 million to meter those connections by 2030. 

The proposal is not without controversy. Several lawmakers were worried that the bill would mandate something their communities already do, or that installing the meters would place a financial burden on their constituents.  

“They’re expensive,” said Christine Watkins, R-Price, who voted against the bill. “We have neighbors that moved in and they’re still waiting to come up with enough money to buy that meter.”

Rodney Hill, who spoke on behalf of Haights Creek Irrigation Company in Kaysville, echoed Watkins’ sentiment during the public comment period. 

“Where does the 30% come from?” he asked, referring to the amount not covered under the federal grant. “Thirty percent comes from each one of those people. That’s $2.4 million that those people have to come up with in less than seven years.” 

Brian Steed, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, acknowledged that secondary metering can be a touchy subject. He pointed to several water districts and users that were “uncomfortable” with some of the bill’s provisions. But both he and Peterson said it was one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to immediately conserve water.

“For the last year and a half I’ve done very little else besides worry about water as the state has grown and as supplies have dwindled. We find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position where we’re projecting increased growth and we’re not projecting increased amounts of water,” said Steed. 

“I honestly don’t know what else to do,” he said. 

The bill was ultimately moved out of the committee, passing with a 9-7 nod.

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What Utah Gov. Cox says is an ‘abomination’ in the West, and how he wants to spend $500M to help

Some of that conservation money is also designed to craft a first-aid plan for the ailing Great Salt Lake, which dipped to its lowest recorded level last October. Scientists fear with the abysmal precipitation predictions, that could repeat again this year.

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The proposed plan to save the Great Salt Lake from drought

With Utah’s rampant population growth and the incessant demand for more housing, Cox has stressed that the need to couple municipal growth with available water supplies is paramount.

A measure by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, would tackle that issue. SB110 addresses those considerations for cities, exempting smaller areas.

Yet labeling a bill that addresses water in times of drought does not guarantee safe navigation to passage.

Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, saw her HB115 suffer defeat in the House on a 41-34 vote after some rural lawmakers questioned the ability of small districts to comply with water loss audit requirements and also complaining it was too vague. The bill called for tracking the efficiency of water distribution.