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SALT LAKE CITY — "He's in a meeting right now."
Those are the words you are likely to hear if you are trying to get Tage Flint on the phone.
"I have told a lot of folks that if I wanted a full-time job and a lot of stress, I'd just stay here," Flint said, reflecting on sleepless nights in times of both floods and drought and 10-12 hour days punctuated by an endless stream of meetings.
"I won't miss that," he said.
Flint is retiring at the end of January with 35 years in Utah's public water supply arena after serving the last 21 years as general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District and 14 years at the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, where he worked as an assistant general manager.
An open house honoring Flint was held Thursday at the basin's Water Efficiency Center in Layton. The relatively new center was named in his honor.
Affable. Unflappable. Charismatic. A skilled engineer who possesses an art for communication.
Praise from his decades in the trenches of public water management flow for Flint, for a man who knew his calling early on, who was raised with water as his legacy, for a man steeped in the inescapable passion for a job that places the delivery of a life-sustaining resource squarely on his shoulders and his staff for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of people he will likely never meet.
"I have never seen him upset, which is a tough thing to manage," said Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. "He is the ultimate diplomat, an incredible ambassador for the water world, the state, his district. He is a great ambassador for everyone and everything he touches."
Flint's district manages seven major reservoirs, miles upon miles of aqueducts and other associated water infrastructure to deliver culinary water to households, businesses and cities in five large northern Utah counties, as well as secondary water used on landscapes and to feed agricultural needs.
Oversight and controlling such a complex system that too many take for granted is akin to wrestling an eight-limbed octopus because of the constant vigilance required over so many moving parts.
It's a job for district managers and their staff that has grown increasingly stressful over the last 10 years for a number of reasons, including the challenge of aging dams, aqueducts and pipelines, and a growing public and political conscience over how water is used, and how it is conserved.
"Tage and I saw in our careers the change in the financing model for water projects in Utah. There was major financing done by the federal government to finance the big water projects but now the federal government has stepped away and that creates stress at the Legislature, at the state level," said Richard Bay, who retired from Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District after 38 years.
While funding water projects has emerged as a top priority at the Utah Legislature this session, it remains to be seen how committed lawmakers will be to big-ticket items.
Flint said districts, straining under the weight of explosive population growth, are largely shifting from building new water development projects — which was a mindset when he first entered the business — to becoming more efficient and creative with how and where existing water is used.
"I think I have seen in the span of my career the pushing of the limits of a finite resource," he said. "We do a lot more shuffling of existing water, whether that is moving it from one place to another or conserving it."
The politics of water
The last decade has seen a tectonic shift when it comes to how most residents, politicians, water district managers, cities, industry, farmers and environmental advocacy groups think about water and how it is used.
"The climate has changed completely. Everyone's much more involved in the politics of water than ever before," Flint said, emphasizing districts have to carve out their position of one that is in the middle, and seldom appease any one interest.
Utah's blistering drought brought water conservation to the forefront, and the last two years especially drove home the harsh reality that the state, district managers, residents and others are hostage to the fickle and unpredictable whims of the weather.
In the 72 years in Weber Basin's history, Flint said there was never a more dire time.
"It was the worst 30-month period we have experienced; we've never seen anything like it," he said, pointing out there's never been a time when so little water was stored in the district's reservoirs than in 2021.
The only water left in those major systems was drinking water for 2022 to serve residential, municipal and industrial needs.
"There was plenty of stress in a scenario like that."
Utah's extreme weather swings the anxiety pendulum for jobs at water districts where there are certain to be good supplies of medicine for a stressed-out stomach, as well as a few prayers.
"There's an old joke that water managers are always whining; whining about the drought or whining about floods," Flint said. "We rarely experience average years."
Flooding becomes an operational problem in which managers are carrying out a delicate dance to keep a supply of water in the reservoirs, leave enough room for more, and not allow a pell-mell release of water that could flood downstream communities.
"That is the white knuckling in the middle of the night with a reservoir that is getting close to the spillway and you still have this huge snowpack producing water into the reservoir," he said. "Operationally, those have been demanding years, stressful years. You live and die by every hour in those flood years. The drought side is not operational. It is hard because you simply shut off the gates and hope for the best. You collect what water you can and distribute it the best you can."
Building a savings account
Flint led the team at Jordan Valley which developed the statewide Slow the Flow campaign, promoting the idea that secondary water supplies should not be a free-for-all, and not be taken for granted.
At Weber Basin, he and his team instituted the deployment of meters for secondary water. While there is much left to do, Flint said connections which are metered compared to those that are not have realized a 23% savings in water consumption.
The metering technology, which Flint said did not exist until about 10 years ago, allows users to see how much water they're using, in real time, and how they compare to their neighbors.
He said secondary water has been traditionally viewed as a buffet that can be enjoyed anytime, without constraint, because there is a perception there is an endless supply.
Secondary water metering initially met with some pushback — no one wants the pressure of being told how much water they can use if it has always been there for the taking — but over time water users have caught on to its benefits and are more conscientious about how much water they're putting on landscaping.
"I think this is the future for secondary water because we are saving a tremendous amount of water with more informed users," he said.
As Flint prepares to step into retirement and away from the water business, he fulfills a legacy first forged by his father, Ivan Flint, who was an assistant general manager for Weber Basin for 11 years and its general manager for 16 years.
The district's board voted to pluck Tage Flint from his role as assistant general manager at Jordan Valley to head up Weber Basin.
"It is very rare for a father and son to be in that same position; it just happened that way when he was finishing his career."
With his father as inspiration, the water world was a natural fit for him.
As a young boy, he recalls recreational excursions where he'd trot behind his father.
"We'd always stop at the dam first, the spillway or some other feature in our travels."
Flint leaves at a time when the "politics of water" have never been more paramount, with state leaders poised to look at water use with a magnifying glass.
Warren Peterson, one of Utah's foremost experts on water law and land use, said Flint's retirement creates a void in the water world.
"Superlatives were invented to describe people like Tage Flint. He may be the most exceptional leader I have worked with in my 40-plus career. He has remarkable integrity, wisdom and foresight," he said. "In my experience, his charisma and congenial nature virtually guarantee that anyone who works with Tage becomes his friend. With so much at stake in Utah's water future, I had hoped Tage would be willing to stay in his current position for at least the next half century."
Flint would smile at that and politely decline.
He said he has no set plans, but will continue in his role as president of the Utah Defense Alliance Board of Directors that supports Hill Air Force Base and other military institutions throughout Utah.
Flint admits "old habits die hard," and he will still keep an eye on the weather forecasts — occasionally.
Both Bay and Flint admit the allure of working in the public water sector comes down to the sense of satisfaction that permeates the long days and those longer nights.
"We are doing something tangibly meaningful here," Flint said. "We're delivering water to the community and that is a life-sustaining product that we can't do without. There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction in this job as well."
Bay advised Flint to take time to enjoy and reflect on his years with the district before jumping too quickly into anything else.
"That's probably pretty good advice," Flint said with a smile, even while conceding his nature is one where he's got to be doing something.