Communities across the West and elsewhere in the country are tapping more than 660 million reasons to boost the integrity of water supply and delivery systems, especially during this time of unrelenting drought.

It’s not enough to get Mother Nature to cooperate in an era of low snowpack, dwindling stream flows and shrinking reservoirs, but the dams, aqueducts, water treatment plants and canals all need to be able to do their job to supply available water, and many of them are getting so old they are compromised.

“Funding really helps us expand our capabilities in a wide variety of ways and they do all track back to helping us directly address the drought, as an example,” Interior Department’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview this week.

“We have funding to repair and modernize some of our aging infrastructure,” she said. “We also have funding with respect to ecosystem restoration and making sure we are taking care of those issues.”

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In conjunction with the six month anniversary of President Joe Biden signing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Trujillo updated the Deseret News on the funding progress made so far with the department and the agency’s efforts to help counter the severe drought in the West.

Trujillo offered the funding information and her perspective two days ahead of the Desert News Elevate discussion it convened on growth and water in the West and what those pressure points might be.

The Interior Department recently announced $420 million in funding for rural water projects across the country through the federal legislation and $240 million that is being directed to aging infrastructure.

That adds up to the 660 million reasons to corral resiliency in engineered systems that are nearing the end of life, or quite frankly, are well past that point, or to pursue new projects that need to be put in place.

‘Dam’ important water infrastructure

Those systems in Utah, operating at optimum efficiency, can help get more water in shriveling Lake Powell and Nevada’s Lake Mead, providing more assurance that water delivery obligations under the Colorado River Compact to downstream states are met.

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Jon Parry, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District assistant general manager, talks on Friday, May 20, 2022, about a project to replace the Arthur V. Watkins Dam siphon pipes with a direct outlet pipe to supply fresh water from Willard Bay to a canal in Box Elder County. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We really have to think creatively and proactively about what response actions we have available and we are doing that very much in collaboration and partnership with the states in the Colorado River Basin and we’re coordinating closely with the tribes in the Colorado River Basin,” Trujillo said. “We are really trying to encourage our partners to have that same spirit of thinking creatively and proactively.”

She stressed that conservation, creative thinking and boosted technology are all integral to tackling water scarcity.

“We have to continue to emphasize that water is not going to magically appear,” she said. “We need to be very careful about how we are using the existing resources that we have.”

Money will help wetlands and wildlife, too

The funding will help other aquatic systems as well, including the Great Salt Lake, which dipped to a new historic low last fall and is projected to drop even more this year. Due to a combination of drought and diversions, the lake has dropped to less than half its size and faces an incredibly perilous destiny if credible solutions aren’t executed.

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This new opportunity from the Interior Department — more than $70 million for aging infrastructure in Utah — includes a financial assist for the Arthur V. Watkins earthen dam at northern Utah’s Willard Bay.

The $8.1 million awarded to the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District will pay for a siphon replacement to make sure more water makes it to users who rely on the freshwater Willard Bay reservoir, such as industry, agriculture and key wetland areas along the Great Salt Lake that include the Harold Crane Waterfowl Management Area west of Ogden.

Jon Parry, an assistant general manager for the district, said replacing the siphon installed in the 1980s will help it meet its contracts for inflow stream deliveries to those key waterfowl areas that are an integral part of the Great Salt Lake’s $1.32 billion annual contribution to Utah’s economy.

These other Utah projects are also getting funded:

  • The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District operates and maintains the Davis Aqueduct, part of Reclamation’s Weber Basin Project, which delivers critical water supplies to cities and farms along the northern Wasatch Front. The Davis Aqueduct Parallel Pipeline Installation funded under the infrastructure law at $23 million will ensure the reliability and resilience of those water supplies in the event of natural disasters or other events.
  • The Uintah Water Conservancy District operates the Vernal Unit of the Central Utah Project and will pipe the 12-mile Steinaker Service Canal to conserve water, reduce maintenance costs, and protect against risk of canal failure. Federal funding is $14 million.
  • The Provo River Water Users Association operates the Deer Creek Dam in Wasatch County, which stores critical water supplies used by irrigators and municipalities in Utah and Salt Lake counties. The installation of a new intake structure, aided by federal funding of $25 million, will ensure reliability of the delivery of water through the Salt Lake Aqueduct.

It is this little known, seldom seen water infrastructure that keeps water flowing to taps across the country — and is especially critical for the rapidly drying West.

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Trujillo noted that as the conversation with the Desert News was taking place, the largest wildfire in the country in her home state of New Mexico had charred hundreds of thousands of acres due to extremely hot, dry conditions.

“I think this situation is going to continue in other communities in the West,” she said. “I really encourage leaders in Western states and managers of water systems to educate the public and develop more efficient water systems because this is a critical resource we need to continue to protect.”