Officials with Utah’s Division of Water Resources hosted a virtual open house Wednesday night to offer an overview of the state’s new Water Resources Plan and answer questions about it from the public.
Candice Hasenyager, the division’s Director as of August of this year, began with a presentation highlighting the plan’s focus on reliable data, secure supply and healthy watersheds. The plan, she said, differs from previous versions in that it is “not a drought response plan.”
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The statewide outlook
Hasenyager acknowledged this year’s extreme drought conditions and record-low water levels in Lake Powell and the Great Salt Lake, then moved on to discuss a few of the 18 goals the state has spelled out in the plan as its strategy to avoid catastrophic water shortages. Scientists predict this drying trend will continue into the foreseeable future as one of the expected ways intensifying climate change will impact western states. The division hopes to offset the worst consequences of this by implementing strategies outlined in its new plan.
“The purpose of this plan is to look 50 years into the future and provide a comprehensive look of Utah’s water resources, a summary of the challenges and actions the Division of Water Resources can do to address them,” Hasenyager said. “One of the things that makes this plan different is this is really supposed to help guide us and provide actions and goals.”
Approximately 20 members of the public tuned in for the presentation and question and answer session.
For those interested in catching up on the full content of the open house, the agency has committed to posting a recording at this link by the end of the week: https://water.utah.gov/2021waterplan/.
One of the biggest take-home messages was the plan’s estimation that water resources may be sufficient statewide for approximately the next 40 years, but that additional supplies will likely be needed after that point given how quickly the state’s population is increasing.
“We can see, depending on the impacts of climate change, we might be okay out to 2055, 2060,” Hasenyager said. “It really just depends on what our water use patterns look like and then what are the impacts of climate change.”
Predictions for Washington County
When it came to discussing Washington County specifically, however, the warnings were dire.
“If we dig a little deeper, or a little further south to the Virgin River Basin, so this is really Washington and Kane counties, we can see that there’s not a ton of [agriculture] to convert to municipal industrial uses,” Hasenyager shared. “We can see that you need the water much sooner, depending on the level of conservation, in 2025 to 2030.”
This finding precipitated a question from a Washington County resident identified only as Mr. Black, asking, “Is my interpretation of your graph is correct, that even in your third-best-case scenario, our county will not have a sustainable amount of water in the next five to 10 years?”
Todd Stonely, assistant director of planning at the Division of Water Resources, passed this question to Joel Williams, the division’s assistant director of development. Williams explained that the data in the plan is from 2015 and an outlook based on current data may be slightly less grim.
“The graph does not take into account conservation advances that we’ve seen and plan to continue to see that will help extend that supply somewhat further,” Williams said. “So we do anticipate having additional supply [for the next], I think, 10 years could be reasonable. Looking beyond that, I think, is when it really starts to show a need for additional water.”
The state’s plan to insure Washington County’s water future continues to be the $2 billion Lake Powell Pipeline, which would transport up to 28 billion gallons — enough for approximately 150,000 households — from the Colorado River at Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir. The project is not yet approved by the federal government and has been a source of controversy with neighboring states and environmental groups who are concerned the Colorado River doesn’t have any additional water to spare.
In response to the next question about which climate change model the plan used to estimate future conditions, Stonely shared results from a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that predicted water levels in the Colorado River will drop by an additional 9% over the next 50 years as a result of climate change. In a separate study, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District reached a similar conclusion about expected declines in their water resources.
Because of results like this and the importance of the Colorado River to the 40 million people across seven western states who rely on it as their main source of drinking water, protests against the pipeline have increased in recent years. In July, a coalition of environmental groups held an event on top of the Hoover Dam in opposition to all projects aiming to take more water out of the river.
The next month, in August, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced its decision to implement cuts, for the first time ever, to Colorado River apportionments based on the low water levels. In 2022, Arizona will have to use 18% less water from Lake Mead, Nevada will have to cut use by 7% and Mexico will receive 8% less than it has in the past.
This federal decision prompted some water activists in the region to speculate that “St. George is not going to get their pipeline.”
The Division of Water Resources did not comment on this controversy at its open house on Wednesday, other than to reiterate that Washington County has ten years to figure it out.
Joan Meiners is the Environment Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The Ground Truth Project. Support her work by donating to these non-profit programs today. Follow Joan on Twitter at @beecycles or email her at [email protected].