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Cox releases ambitious water plan in response to Utah drought

By Brian Maffly | Jan. 14, 2022, 7:00 a.m.

Utah’s water resources are facing pressures from both the demand and supply sides, with the state growing faster than almost any other just as a hotter, drier climate is leaving reservoirs depleted, setting the stage “for a series of cascading disasters,” according to Gov. Spencer Cox’s water plan released Thursday. The plan lays out an aggressive agenda for reducing water use, investment in aging water infrastructure and rescuing ecologically stressed lakes and watersheds, while at the same time preserving agriculture and accommodating additional urban growth. This might sound a little like having the proverbial cake and eating it too, but a bold coordinated course of action must be taken if Utah is to preserve its quality of life. “The extreme drought conditions this past year have shown all Utahns the importance of water planning and conservation,” Cox said. “We have benefited from water storage decisions made by policymakers 100 years ago. Now it’s our turn to ensure water security for future generations and this plan will do this.” The plan is an outgrowth of the freshman governor’s One Utah Roadmap, which directs agencies to “establish a statewide water cooperative action plan that prioritizes conservation, storage, agriculture preservation, and use optimization.” This effort entailed compiling 200 recommendations, prioritizing them and negotiating trade-offs among competing objectives. On Thursday, Utahns saw the plan’s first of four elements with a report on the need to shore up the pipelines and reservoirs that store, transport and distribute water to Utah’s agricultural producers and cities. This infrastructure, built largely between 1930 and 1990, includes canals, irrigation systems and wastewater treatment plants. “As our community continues to grow, so do our new infrastructure needs. Protecting public health will require us to fund new water treatment and distribution avenues to ensure all Utahns have access to safe, reliable, and clean drinking water,” the report states. While the report emphasizes the need for new water development, nowhere does it explicitly endorse the state’s three largest, costliest and most controversial water development proposals, the Bear River and Pine Valley projects and the Lake Powell pipeline. All three are needed, according to their proponents, to provide for growing populations in the northern Wasatch Front, Cedar City and St. George, respectively. “Implementation of any new storage projects should align with water conservation efforts and expansion of current storage facilities,” the report said. “Given the uncertainty of Utah water resources and the need to support a growing population, Utah will continue to explore these opportunities to create additional water infrastructure on public lands.” The plan’s installment on “vibrant communities” will be released in April, on productive agriculture in July, and on healthy watersheds in October. Driving the need for a coordinated approach is the fact that more than 20 years of drought and record-high temperatures are leaving Utah with less water at a time when its needs are increasing. The consequences could be dire and far-reaching. “As our state becomes increasingly arid, the risk of wildfires increases. Fighting wildland fires requires significant amounts of water, depleting water storage, increases risk of landslides in burn scar areas, impacting communities, and directly threatens essential drinking water infrastructure,” the report says. “Further, thunderstorms following fire events increase water quality impacts within and downstream of burned areas which poses problems for water-supply reservoirs, drinking-water treatment plants, and downstream aquatic ecosystems.” Meanwhile, Utah’s reservoirs are less than half full, raising the prospect of severe cutbacks in water deliveries. Lake Powell is currently 27% full, the lowest it has ever been since it began filling in the 1960s, and the Great Salt Lake hit its lowest level in recorded history. The report calls for investments in the following areas: sewering growing rural areas where septic systems threaten groundwater; seismic retrofits; optimizing irrigation; metering water use; pushing dam safety projects; regionalizing small drinking water systems; replacing lead pipes and fixtures; completing projects to facilitate the conversion of agricultural water to municipal use; upgrading wastewater treatment. These investments will cost many billions of dollars. Cox expects to tap federal American Rescue Plan Act allocations to the tune of $400 million to install meters on secondary water systems and other measures to reduce water use and stretch existing supplies. Large water districts and cities are responsible for planning and funding many of these investments, while the state should provide leadership to produce effective policies and build partnerships among various levels of government. “The state has an important role in providing technical and financial assistance to small or rural communities, as necessary improvements can be cost prohibitive for local governments,” the report said. “At the same time, there is an expectation that small communities do everything they can to contribute to the cost of these projects, which may include increasing rates.” Utahns enjoy some of the lowest water and sewer rates in the nation, which disincentivizes conservation. While the report does not suggest rates should be increased, it calls for greater transparency in billing. “Some of the full cost of water at a household or business level may be included within property tax rates, and therefore is less visible to the water user,” the report said. “It has been suggested that a transparent water bill that outlines the full cost of water, and makes water use data more understandable, would encourage conservation and reduce demand.”

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