Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Gene Shawcroft says people living in his neighborhood are so accustomed to Utah's past water availability that they still set their sprinklers to run every second or third day, beginning in May and ending around October and November, regardless of the weather.
However, as Utah continues to suffer from ongoing drought and depleted water supplies, he believes the way residents and businesses water their lawns has to change.
"We've got to be in a situation where we use the water based on what our plants need ... just like a certain amount of water for crops," said Shawcroft, the chairman of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. "If we consider our lawn a crop, we don't have to put more water on it than it needs. That's one of the things we can do (to reduce water use) without doing cost or anything at all."
He made those remarks Tuesday during an online panel discussion about the dwindling levels of the Colorado River, hosted by the Salt Lake Chamber. Utah water experts used the event to describe the economic importance of the river and efforts to conserve water as the river produces less and less water for the state to consume.
Why the Colorado River matters in Utah
Utah's share of the Colorado River comes from a compact, or agreement, with other states that dates back to 1922. But this document, which turns 100 years old next month, didn't really give Utah the right to use water, says Amy Haas, the executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. Instead, it gave the Upper Basin — including Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — 7.5 million acre-feet of water to use each year.
Five Native American Tribes are also members of the Upper Colorado River Basin today.
In 1948, the allotment was adjusted to give Utah 23% of whatever supply is available to the Upper Colorado River Basin states. This, Haas explains, can be confusing because it's not a fixed number because the supply changes every year. The exact number has only dropped because of the West's ongoing "megadrought," which has caused poor snowpack totals more often than not over the past two decades.
"Since 2000 — what we call the current drought of record or 'millenium drought' — the average natural flow of the river has been 12.3 million acre-feet and this continues to decline as a result of protracted drought and the impacts of climate change," she said, noting that the 2021 figure was about half of the 20-year average and that the average is also far less than what it was when the compact was first signed.
So how important is the Colorado River to Utah? This allotment only accounts for a little more than a quarter of Utah's water; however, nearly two-thirds of all Utahns benefit from it because of its proximity to the heart of the state's population, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources.
The river not only helps eastern Utah, where the river runs in the state but also the Wasatch Mountain regions through various reservoirs and other projects, says Joel Ferry, the director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the division. Simply put, the Wasatch Front's growth rides on the back of the Colorado River.
"That water is being used for industry, for agriculture and for our communities in eastern Utah, through Duchesne and Uintah counties, but also Utah, Salt Lake, Wasatch and other counties," he said. "It's a huge driver of economic activity. When you look at where a lot of the growth is occurring on the Wasatch Front, that growth is occurring principally because of our Colorado River water."
One project on Utah's radar would even stretch this water to reach more communities in southern Utah. The proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would take water collected at Lake Powell, a reservoir along the river, and send it to areas in fast-growing southwest Utah, though it's met growing backlash because of the ongoing drought and depletion of the nation's second-largest reservoir.
The Colorado River Basin states approved a Drought Contingency Plan in 2019 but Haas cites the seemingly never-ending drought as a reason why those who use the river will likely have to retool the document yet again. In the meantime, experts say everyone from governments to farmers, businesses and residents need to help out because there's really no way of knowing how long the drought will persist.
"We can't control Mother Nature. We don't know if she's going to provide 6.3 million-acre-feet or 22," Shawcroft says. "What we can do is we can control our demands. We can control how much water we use."
Dealing with drought
Growth is the biggest concern at the moment. Utah is the fastest-growing state in the nation in terms of percentage increase, and it's projected to grow by another 66% to a population of nearly 5.5 million by 2060, according to a University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute report released earlier this year.
Yet that population growth could be impacted by the ongoing water challenges.
"Our water supply isn't going to grow at the same rate that our population is going to grow," Shawcroft says. "The only way we can continue to grow is if we use less (water). I would implore the business community to find ways to work with us in all sectors — residential, commercial, business (and) agriculture — to reduce our use in a way that we can be more efficient and yet still allow us to have water to grow."
The future of agriculture, an industry that uses anywhere from 75% to 85% of Utah's water, is also at stake. Ferry, a fifth-generation Utah farmer, argues that the recent pandemic and related supply chain issues showcased how "vital" the industry is for the state. It's also an industry that improves community well-being, through cultural events like local farmers markets.
Cutting back on water
Cutting back can be tricky because "conservation comes at a price," Shawcroft says. That's why he believes just simply deciding to use less water is the easiest solution to the problem. Water audits are another resource that can help residents and businesses reduce water consumption at a relatively low cost.
That's not going to be the answer to every problem, though. Future costs may include new water infrastructure, rehabilitation of existing infrastructure and other expenses tied to reducing water consumption. The alternative is risking the collapse of a viable water structure — and that's not really an option.
"We have to recognize the value of water," he said. "If we can implement something more expensive today that allows us to continue to grow and develop, I would say that's a wise investment. So we need to consider those."
An infrastructure law that Congress passed last year is helping with some of these projects. For example, the Utah Legislature approved $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to go toward secondary metering in Utah. The Utah Board of Water Resources in August approved $190 million of that money toward dozens of projects that will add about 114,000 meters in the next few years, or 57% of the state's remaining unmetered secondary water connections.
We have a toolbox full of really sharp tools and it's time for us to put them to work.
–Joel Ferry, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources
The program, once completed, is estimated to save 65,000 acre-feet of water annually because the average secondary water connection with a meter uses 20% to 30% less water, Ferry says. That's enough water to fill a body of water like Rockport Reservoir in Summit County and then some because it has an active capacity of nearly 61,000 acre-feet.
The Legislature also approved more turf buyback funding, which swaps out water-thirsty grass for more efficient landscapes outside of homes and businesses. Towns and cities are also now required to take water resources into account more in city planning than ever before, experts said Tuesday.
There are even some changes to Utah's water law. Lawmakers created a water trust to send water to places like the Great Salt Lake by temporarily removing the "use or lose it" mentality in Utah water rights so that water can flow into the lake. Ferry points out this could also help out the Colorado River system.
Meanwhile, Utah's water optimization grant program has helped farmers switch to more water-wise farming equipment in recent years, too. This allows the industry to grow while also using less water than before — even though some critics argue that more still needs to be reduced.
"We have a toolbox full of really sharp tools and it's time for us to put them to work," Ferry said, adding that the state will look to receive more federal aid in the ongoing efforts.
Every project is chipping away at the amount of water Utah consumes, which helps when the state's share of the Colorado River isn't as much as it used to be.
"With these new resources available ... we are leading out in many areas that other states have historically led out," Shawcroft says. "We're at a much, much better position than we were because of the resources that have been committed."