The town of Stockton in Tooele County is under a building moratorium because it is running out of water and needs $2.4 million from the Utah Legislature for a new well.
For the last two summers, farmers have not planted and a system that had been delivering up to 500 gallons of water per minute has dwindled to just 130 gallons per minute.
Cities are supposed to have two sources of water, Stockton Mayor Nando Meli said, but the mountain springs have dried up and the city’s tank is on a backup generator due to a 4,000-acre wildfire and subsequent debris flow.
Meli said at first the debris forced the town to consider an immediate investment in a new water plant, but ultimately that idea was shelved in the short term because, as the mayor put it, it doesn’t do any good to have a new treatment plant if there is nothing to treat.
Some communities throughout Utah are under similar circumstances and are unable to bear the brunt of the costs on their own that are posed by system repairs, or they are out of options altogether with springs that have gone dry and having to rely on water that is trucked in for residents.
Oakley in Summit County issued a building moratorium, and Meli says Lynndyl in Millard County has gone dry as has Marysvale in Piute County.
Although the state has mechanisms in place in which it can offer grants or low-interest loans to address water-related problems, the needs due to the drought have been overwhelming, with details that were outlined in a legislative appropriations subcommittee on natural resources earlier this week.
Tim Davis, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, said some of the needs have been covered by American Rescue Plan money from the federal government, especially in light of the intensified drought, but that money is also going dry.
Davis said in 2022, the division responded to 50 drinking water emergencies across Utah, where water has been shut off, there have been decreased flows, failed infrastructure and problems to systems caused by wildfires or even flooding. On average over the last five years, the division has logged 52 drinking water emergencies, which include boil water orders due to contamination such as E.coli, a bacteria found in the intestines of people or animals, or chemical overfeeds such as chlorine or fluoride.
Gov. Spencer Cox’s proposed budget includes $12.7 million for water emergency and infrastructure needs, helping to right the circumstances caused by drought and make improvements to drinking water systems that are well over 50 years old, Davis said.
“We identified $2 billion in current drinking water infrastructure needs and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. So we have a long way to go,” Davis said. “But I think, you know, I think the state is committed to helping water systems across the state.”
In addition asking for a special appropriation from the state Legislature, Meli said the town applied for federal assistance — which if approved — could be shuttled to other Utah communities that are hurting.
Unlike conditions the drought has imposed, water-related issues are not in short supply in Utah.
The problem of adequate water supplies for irrigation storage is compounded by small reservoirs that are in need of dredging because instead of filling up with water, they are filling up with dirt, sand and rocks, according to testimony in the subcommittee meeting.
“As you know, water is a key to the West, and especially here in Utah and in rural Utah, without water, you can own all the land, and without any water, you really don’t own anything,” said Garfield County Commissioner Jerry Taylor.
Taylor, whose hometown is Escalante, said after June, irrigation water is already spent and farmers go without a second or third cutting of hay, during the growing season.
He added that reservoir “storage” is misleading.
“... They’re not really empty, they’re full of sand. And so we started this process of hey, we need to do something about that. We can either raise the dam or we can dredge it out but something has to be done,” he said.
And even though Taylor’s area, like much of the state, is sitting at 200% of average for snowpack, he said he wonders how efficient that water will be.
“Right now, that water is going to come off and, more than likely if it comes off quick, we’re not going to be able to store it, so storage is key.”
He added that statewide, 12,340 acre-feet of water storage is lost per year due to sedimentation.
Taylor, with support from other counties, wants $5 million for feasibility studies and possible pilot projects that would help rectify the storage system vulnerabilities going forward.
Another water funding request before state lawmakers calls for $10 million to make water right holders “whole” should they lose those rights in the event of an extreme water shortage.
Funding requests are ranked by each legislative appropriations subcommittee and then advanced for additional consideration to the Executive Appropriations Committee, which may or may not recommend them for inclusion in the state budget.