EDITORIAL- When The Well Runs Dry: The growing problem of Utah’s shrinking water supply

Glen Canyon, 110 feet below usual water levels
Glen Canyon, 110 feet below usual water levels

Western cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City are testaments to mankind’s ability to manipulate the environment in order to provide us with a great bounty that wouldn’t otherwise exist. One of the most important changes to the landscape has been the damming of mighty rivers and drilling deep into ground to access ancient aquifers to access that most sparse of resources: water.

In today’s modern world, where most of us don’t see a river or lake on a daily basis, we forget that something as “old fashioned” as a water supply is just as critical to our survival now as it was when Pioneers settled the state. It is water that will dictate the fate of the west in general and Utah in particular. It has a direct impact not only on our ability to feed and clean ourselves, but also on industry and the economy. If Utah were to dry up, so too would our population.

And things are starting to look a little parched.

For example Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming all have rights to access the water in the Colorado River. When original estimates and agreements were made on how to divide this water, the Colorado was averaging 15 million acre-feet of flow a year – today that average is closer to 12 million acre-feet due in no small part to the regions sustained droughts over the past decade.

To provide perspective, a single acre-foot is roughly the amount of water used by a single suburban house in a year and equates to  326,000 gallons of water. In 2005, the USGS reported that Utah used 5.73 million acre-feet of water that year, the majority of that going to irrigation, followed by general public and industrial consumption. As of right now, the various reservoirs, wells, and rivers within and out side of the state are able to provide for the needs of Utah – but we are approaching a day when this will no longer be the case.

Water rights are somewhat tricky to wrap your head around, but in the most simple of terms, it is typically based on a first come-first serve basis. To use an example: if three people buy a 100 gallon tank, and it is agreed that person A owns 60 gallons, person B owns 30 gallons, and person C owns 10 gallons, everything is square – until that tank drops below 100 gallons. If, one day, the tank held only 80 gallons, Person A would get 60 gallons, person B would get 20 gallons, and person C would get nothing. At that point, person C may want to renegotiate the terms of the deal. To add a level of complication, person A still has a right to all 60 gallons, even if the tank is on Person C’s land.

Likewise, we are reaching a point where states like California (person A) will always be assured of the water that exists in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and as water levels continue to decline the less Utah will have to sustain ourselves because California gets first dibs.  Now is the time for policy makers in the state to consider our long term water future.

The actions of Governor Gary Herbert’s passive attitude towards the citizens of Utah as they attempt to protect the Snake Valley Aquifer from Las Vegas, the Utah State Legislature’s willingness to approve a nuclear power plant (owned by former lawmaker Aaron Tilton) along the Green River point to the greater problem: the laissez-faire attitude towards water conservation by policy makers in the second driest state in the nation who might not fully realize the implications of their decisions.

It is the opinion of Utah Political Capitol that the time has come to create a comprehensive solution to our water needs. This solution will require more dams, more wells, more pipelines, and more conservation – and each of these must be well regulated by the state to ensure that all the citizens of Utah will have access to water for years to come. The state must be directly involved, if only because the cost to stay ahead of our water needs will only increase over time.

Decisions will be painful politically and will run counter to the philosophy of hands-off government popular on the Hill. Ranchers, developers, and industry may not like the decisions that must be made – but if we do not start to ease into a 21st century solution, we will suffer massively as drought and want become the norm.  By creating solutions now, we are ensuring growth for tomorrow.

The only alternative outcome is to let the state return to the desert, incapable of sustaining our growing population.

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