Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's capital city passed a new ordinance Tuesday that expands areas where a previously approved cap on water used by new industrial and commercial developments applies.
The ordinance, which the Salt Lake City Council passed unanimously Tuesday evening, limits new developments within the Salt Lake City Public Utilities service area from using an annual average of over 200,000 gallons of water per day. Salt Lake City Public Utilities provides water to large portions of Millcreek, Holladay, Cottonwood Heights and unincorporated Salt Lake County, in addition to Salt Lake City.
The council approved the measure following a presentation by Salt Lake City Public Utilities Director Laura Briefer earlier in the day. She told members the code revision is essentially a "companion" to a zoning ordinance the city passed on Dec. 7, 2021, which first introduced the 200,000 gallon-per-day cap.
However, the original ordinance had exceptions that the new law covers, such as some parts of Salt Lake City and also the outside jurisdictions that use Salt Lake City water. The new code applies the same water limit to areas outside of Salt Lake City and even areas of the city that weren't previously included, like parts of its northwest quadrant.
"We want to make sure that this policy is equitably applied not just in Salt Lake City but across the entire area that relies on Salt Lake City's water," Briefer said, adding that the measure mostly focuses on "very large, intensive" industrial water users.
The code would affect any plans for large-scale data centers, computer chip manufacturers, bottling plants or food processing plants — all of which require large amounts of water for cooling or other reasons. For example, Venkatesh Uddameri, a professor and director of the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech University, told NBC News last year that data centers typically use as much as 3 to 5 million gallons of water per day for cooling down servers.
But Briefer contends that the 200,000 gallons per day average limit still offers "a lot of flexibility" that won't scare off business.
"A lot of these types of industries already exist in these areas and are below that threshold," she said.
New residential, agricultural and institutional properties are exempt from the ordinance. Briefer clarified to KSL.com that existing industrial and commercial businesses that use 200,000 gallons or more would also not be affected by the law. That said, businesses currently above the cap would not be allowed to use more water if they want to expand operations, and existing businesses using below 200,000 gallons would not be allowed to exceed the limit through any expansion, either.
The measure comes as Salt Lake County remains split between severe and extreme drought status, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. It's an ongoing drought that began in the spring of 2020. Utah — and the entire West — has also been impacted by a string of intense droughts over the past two decades, commonly referred to as a "megadrought."
The megadrought is considered the region's worst in 1,200 years.
This has led to calls for water conservation across the state and the West. Salt Lake City Public Utilities officials reported in September that they were able to meet a 5% water use reduction goal this summer, saving about 2.9 billion gallons of water in the process.
Salt Lake City's new ordinance also follows a proclamation issued by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox last month, which suspends new water diversions within the Great Salt Lake basin, in an effort to keep water flowing into the Great Salt Lake.
New watershed management plan in the works
Meanwhile, Salt Lake City Public Utilities is also in the process of designing a new watershed management plan for the 190 square miles of land near the watersheds it manages from City Creek Canyon to Little Cottonwood Canyon, though that is in the early stages.
There's a reason why protecting the canyon watersheds is important. While Deer Creek Reservoir is the department's largest single water provider source, accounting for about 30% of water in the Salt Lake City Public Utilities system, the water from canyon creeks combined still adds up to about 60% of the department's water supply, according to department data.
"(It is) a very significant portion of our water supply — it's more than half of our supplies," Briefer said.
There are two other reasons that the canyon watersheds are so important to Salt Lake City. First, since the city has full control of the water rights, it means the department can manage the watersheds any way it sees fit.
Second, the water naturally flows toward the service area.
"So, Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood creeks, for instance, based on gravity flow, they can actually feed almost all of our water service area," Briefer explained. "When we're talking about drought and other water stressors, having these water supplies in such close proximity, under the direct control of Salt Lake City, is very, very valuable to the city."
The watersheds also provide value to other groups for various reasons, including recreation. They carry cultural and economic significance; hence, there's a need to protect the watersheds from water pollution while also ensuring they continue to produce water, which is the primary focus of the new management plan.
Department officials said the plan will look into climate factors, including drought and wildfires. It will also look at the human influence on the watersheds, such as population growth and spikes in recreation.
An initial draft document could be revealed as early as the spring of 2023.