July 7, 2015

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Liquid Gold

The Ebbs and Flows of Utah’s Water Future

By Sarah Ryther Francom, Illustration By Mike Bohman

July 7, 2015

As Utah faces its fourth year of drought, and as states like California and Nevada endure crippling conditions, it is clear that water planning and conservation is critical to our future. Cities like Payson and Lehi have already implemented water restrictions, and in June, Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order requiring all government agencies to conserve water use.

But Utah’s current dry spell isn’t the problem keeping water planners up at night—it’s the state’s anticipated population growth. By 2060, Utah’s population is expected to double. And according to the Utah’s Future Water Development and Infrastructure report, Utah will need an additional 749,000 acre feet of water to accommodate that growth.

Determining where the water will come from—whether through conservation, new infrastructure or another method—is the challenge facing Utahns today.

A $33 Billion Plan

Utah’s water future is a complex issue to say the least. There are many legal and policy issues, competing interests and diverse stakeholders—and don’t forget about Mother Nature. Finding solutions and compromises to anticipated future needs is a complicated task. In 2013, Herbert appointed a Water Resource Advisory Team to bring all interested parties together to create a strategic, water-planning roadmap. In addition to this team, organizations like Envision Utah and the state’s water conservancy districts have worked to develop water strategies that will ensure Utah isn’t the next California.

Envision Utah recently surveyed nearly 50,000 Utahns about several statewide issues, including water. The poll included five water-saving scenarios (see sidebar).

“We’re not creating any more water, so if we’re going to grow and have more households, additional water needs to come from somewhere,” says Robert Grow, CEO of Envision Utah. “Water can come from us conserving, agriculture and food production, and large water projects using our shares of the two interstate rivers. There aren’t that many choices about where the water comes from, but all [survey] scenarios leave us with efficient water to accommodate families and business growth.”

Though the results won’t be released until fall, the Envision Utah survey will be given to the Water Resource Advisory Team to use as they construct their plan, which is slated to be released at the end of 2015.

Utah’s four major water conservancy districts—Jordan Valley, Weber Basin, Central Utah and Washington County—have also developed a long-term water plan they believe is Utah’s most promising approach. Known as Prepare60, the plan aims to serve as a water-planning strategy through 2060. 

“Our population is expected to double in the next 45 years as a state. The amount of infrastructure for water that we will need is tremendous. That is my biggest challenge—it’s not the delivery this year, but it’s keeping pace and not falling behind the curve,” says Richard Bray, CEO and general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. “Our future water supply and the new infrastructure we build will support new economic and population growth.”

The Prepare60 plan includes a detailed, year-by-year schedule of tasks that includes a combination of repair and replacement of aging water infrastructure and the development of new infrastructure and water supplies throughout the state. The plan will cost $33 billion. Nearly half of the funds—$15 billion—would be allocated toward new infrastructure utilizing the Colorado River (which includes the controversial Central Utah and Lake Powell Pipeline projects) and the Bear River Pipeline.

 “We have an allocation right and Western states would be happy if we don’t develop our allocation,” Bray says, referring to the Colorado and Bear rivers.

The remaining $18 billion would be used to replace aging infrastructure, such as dams, treatment plants, power plants, and thousands of miles of canals, pipelines and tunnels.

The $33 billion upfront cost would initially be shared among the water conservancy districts, who would account for 50 percent, with the remaining 50 percent divided among municipalities and cities, a new state revolving loan and an existing Department of Water Resources’ fund. After the upfront investment, water users would repay all capital costs with interest.

While Bray acknowledges the Prepare60 plan comes with a significant price tag, he says the return on investment is, “tremendous. It’s about six-fold of quantifiable benefits. If we follow the plan of developing new water supplies, it will create 930,000 new jobs, $93 billion in incremental economic output and $71 billion additional personal income.”

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