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We use Five Billion Gallons of water in Utah every day. Where does it go? What does it go through? With an award from Penn State Public Media's "Think Outside the Pipes" reporting initiative, this series of reports we're calling "Five Billion Gallons" brings you stories on water use, infrastructure, and issues in Utah.With your hosts Jennifer Pemberton and Matt Jensen.Tune in October 1 - November 6, 2013:Tuesday afternoons at 4:30 & 6:30Wednesday mornings at 7:30 & 8:30Follow the program on Facebook for all your Utah water news

Episode 6: The Changing Face of Water Management

Jennifer Pemberton

At the 20th Annual Utah Water Summit in Provo last month, Governor Herbert introduced his “gang of six” water experts, who spent the summer gathering ideas from the public at a series of Town Hall meetings about water.

One of those gang of six experts, Warren Peterson, spoke about the future of agriculture in Utah. He quoted Tom Bingham, who was the Farm Bureau Lobbyist for 25 years:

“He said, ‘I used to just go and count boots under the table, and I knew how the vote was going to come out,’ and now there aren’t any boots under the table.

I couldn’t really see people’s shoes from where I was standing, but I was looking out at a lot of bald heads and white hair, several ball caps, and at least 2 cowboy hats. But I also saw more women than I expected to see and a lot of laptops and iPads. I felt like I was staring at the changing face, if not footwear, of water management in this state.

But some things haven’t changed. Utahns pride themselves on being self-reliant and cite their pioneer heritage as the source of that pride. If I had a nickel for every time someone at the Water Summit said “blossom as a rose”, I’d have a pocketful. Or, if I was playing another game, I would have been drunk by 9:15 in the morning.

In his address, the Governor made it clear that this is still the case:

Credit Jennifer Pemberton
Governor Herbert addressing the media after his address at the Utah Water Summit.
“We want to be a self-sufficient state where we have water, where we have food, where we have energy, where we have economic development.”

Another reason for the continued focus on self-sufficiency is that the federal government is getting out of the water development business, according to Tage Flint, head of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

“The federal government has shown great foresight and they were great partners for many years in helping build water projects in the state...Now it’s apparent that the federal government is getting out of the construction business of water projects.”

He’s talking specifically about the Bureau of Reclamation shifting its focus. The Bureau of Reclamation shaped the West as we know it. They took meandering rivers and straightened them into canals and they stopped rivers in their tracks with giant concrete dams that were the Great Pyramids of their day. But the Bureau of Reclamation isn’t funding “water projects” any more. They are letting states “reclaim” the water infrastructure projects that defined the last century and they’re turning their focus to conservation.

“Water efficiency truly becomes the next large development project in the state... Water conservation, for most water managers now, becomes a water supply project,” said Flint.

Credit Weber Basin Conservation Garden
Image from the Weber Basin Conservation Learning Garden. Conservation and efficiency are seen as potential sources of additional water in Utah's changing approach to water management.

That's critical to understanding the change in water management. Since we can’t force any more water to fall from the sky, the only way we can increase our water supply to meet the demands of a growing population is through conservation and efficiency.

Speaking of water falling from the sky...we are actually going to see more of it, according to state climatologist Robert Gillies:

“We’re actually getting more precipitation -- we’re wetter -- but less of it is falling as snow, but more as rain.”

That means that instead of storing our water as snow in the mountains and letting it melt and run down in the spring when we need it, it’s going to come right down the mountains in the fall and winter, when demand is at its lowest. And it’s not going to stick around until summer.

In a recent, very local study led by Tim Bardsley of Western Water Assessment, researchers figured out that every 1 degree increase in the average temperature in Salt Lake City could mean up to a 6.5% reduction in the streamflow that provides the bulk of the city’s water supply.

So, more rain, but less water in our streams, and the 3rd fastest growing population in the country. This is the reality facing our state and this is why the face of water management in Utah sits in front of a computer and doesn’t have much mud on his or her boots.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that we have to stay ahead of the flow when it comes to water management. We have to be innovative as we anticipate what our rapid population growth and changing climate will mean for the five billion gallons we, the people of Utah, use every single day.

Five Billion Gallons is a production of Utah Public Radio, supported by Penn State Public Media’s “Think Outside the Pipes” radio initiative. Thanks, Penn State!