Efforts to reduce water use by farmers, homeowners and cities have worked, according to state water managers who say wise water use has delayed a controversial plan to divert up to 72 billion gallons of water from the Bear River in northern Utah for municipal and agricultural use.
For more than 30 years, the proposed project has been opposed by some industry and environmental professionals. The river is the largest contributor to the Great Salt Lake and diversion of the water would lower the level of the lake an estimated 11 feet, where it would be maintained until the diversion was removed. This change could negatively affect habitat for migratory birds and brine shrimp.
The reduced water level would also have a negative impact for mineral extraction industries who built infrastructure around the Great Salt Lake at its current level. Some farmers in the area could face intermittent flooding of crop and grazing lands because of fluctuating levels of water around newly built reservoirs. However, growing populations across Utah, and especially in metropolitan Salt Lake City, necessitate increased water resources in the near future.
Todd Adams is the deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. He says water meters that measure the use of secondary water, water that is piped into a property for outdoor use but is not used for drinking or bathing, has contributed greatly to improving water conservation in the state.
“In the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District area they’ve installed 5000 to 7000 meters that weren’t developed ten years ago," he said. " These meters are new, and what they’ve seen so far is a 36 percent reduction in the water use on landscapes, outdoor landscapes, and all they’re doing is sending an information component to the homeowner, they’re not changing their billing right now, it’s just becoming more efficient with the existing resources that we have.”
As of 2016, the US Geological Survey water-use report indicates that Utah residents are among the highest per-capita consumers of water in the country, at an average of 187 gallons per person. Over 78 percent of that water is applied to irrigation uses. Only two states, Idaho and Nevada, have higher per capita water use.
Local water shortages in Cache County are an unpleasant reality for some Utah residents, according to Nathan Daugs, the manager of the newly established Cache Water Conservancy District.
“The Bear River development has been put off because of conservation, but in the interim, there will be shortages in the valley, smaller shortages. Certain areas of the valley will run out of water as development happens in the next five to ten years. So if we don’t do something to supply them with water, they can’t do any building out there.”
The consequences of one such water shortage were felt in Mendon, Utah, a small town of 1,400 residents where a moratorium on development and annexation of new buildings lasted for 9 years. It was lifted in October. The city has been searching for a new source of water since 2009, when the city well tested high in nitrates, a potential carcinogen.
“We grew up here in Mendon.”
Colten Lindsay recently started looking for a home to purchase for his family. I met him at his parents’ home in Mendon, where he’s living with his wife and two children while his parents are away on a two-year mission for their church. He recently put an offer on a home in Mendon, but he didn’t get it.
“There were five offers on the property. The thing that was most intriguing about the property is that it came with three water shares.”
The Mendon City Council designates shares of water to each property in Mendon, about 447 gallons per day. Some larger properties are provided more shares of secondary water.
“Most people who move here, not a lot of people move away. And if they do their house is sold the next day.”
Lindsay recently decided to purchase a home in Logan, a larger town near Mendon.
“It’s not my preferred place to live in Logan, I would like to be in a rural area. But we’re just debating our options as first-time home buyers where originally we were kind of looking on the outskirts, like I said, but then thinking about it we decided we’re not going to live in this house forever, and so we kind of started looking into Logan, and we found the one that we did like and we just kind of talked ourselves into it.”
One possible solution to water shortages in places like Mendon is water banking.
“This is where water rights can be held in a bank, very similar to money in a regular bank. So that people who aren’t maybe using all of their water can put it in the bank, and people who need water can borrow it out of the bank.”
That’s Jack Drexler of North Logan, who served in the Utah house of representatives.
“In my time in the legislature, I sponsored a bill to allow for water banking, which is a concept whose time has come but has not passed the legislature yet, including with my efforts.”
Proponents of water banking are hopeful that the formation of the Cache Water Conservancy District will inspire the political will to pass legislation legalizing water banks in Cache County within the next few years.
“I think water banking in the state as a whole and especially Cache County has a great future.”
That’s Nathan Daugs again with the Cache Water Conservancy District.
“Now that we’re a district, hopefully, the legislature can get a bill passed in the next few years to make it so it is legal to do so. That’ll be a way that we can move water from water-rich areas of the valley to areas that need it in a manner that benefits the water user that owns that water now. That, hopefully in my mind, can extend agriculture in Cache County for another generation, maybe.”
The need for more water to meet the demands of a growing population means plans for the Bear River Project are ongoing. Where and when it will be implemented is still being discussed. When a final site is eventually chosen, environmental impact studies and public hearings will begin. In the meantime, we conserve, we debate, and we wait. Colten Lindsay and his family continue to make plans.
“My plan, in the future is I want to build a house in a rural area like Mendon, or Paradise, or Richmond or anywhere like that.”