“If you ask most people in Utah if we are we running out of water, they say, oh, absolutely,” says Zach Frankel, Executive Director of the Utah River Council (URC). But the conventional wisdom is wrong.
During a field trip to proposed Bear River Project dam sites in Cache Valley near Logan, Utah, Frankel explained that 85% of Utah’s water goes to agriculture; that means less than 15% goes to municipal uses including houses and lawns, so even with population growth there is plenty of wiggle room.
However, even if no agricultural water shifts to municipal use, Utah still doesn’t need huge, expensive water projects to supply water to cities and towns. Water projections from the State of Utah assume that people will use 295 gallons per person per day, a huge amount that is much larger than other Western desert cities.
URC thought the number sounded suspiciously high, and when they double-checked the numbers they discovered that instead of averaging water data from a period of years, the State had cherry-picked the single highest data point. What’s more, the State’s data were so bad that they had accidentally substituted water use data from Saratoga Springs, New York for data from Saratoga Springs, Utah.
“Utah doesn’t know how much water Utahns are using or how much we will need,” Frankel says, “They actually didn’t have the data.”
Some U.S. cities encourage conservation with incentives; for instance, one strategy that works is to have a standard allotment of household water that is cheap or even free, but then to raise the price for water use beyond the normal threshold. By contrast, Utah hides the true cost of water in property tax bills so that people can’t tell how much they are actually spending, and charges essentially the same rate no matter how much water people use.
The irony is, to preserve the illusion of cheap water, taxpayers are being asked to subsidize expensive billion dollar water developments that will make Utah’s future water astronomically expensive. When the price of water goes up, conservation will inevitably kick in, but it will be after large-scale environmental damage has already been done.
According to URC, all Utah has to do in order to avoid running out of water is achieve the same water use per capita as Denver, Colorado. It seems clear that Utah water policy is being driven by big-money construction contracts, not by actual water needs.
Utah Rivers Council: utahrivers.org