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Front Page » September 24, 2002 » Scene » Water Issues
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Water Issues

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Either too much or too little, water is always a worry for rural Utah

Water going over the spillway at Millsite Reservoir is a welcome, but only sporadically seen sight in Emery County.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series which deals with issues facing rural communities.

The water issue is never a simple one. There always seems to be too much or too little. This year Utah is experiencing its fourth consecutive year of drought conditions. The reservoirs around the state are at record low levels. Locally Joe's Valley Reservoir is lower than it ever has been since it was initially filled in the 1960s.

At the recent rural summit in Cedar City the issue of "When your well or stream runs dry....what then?" was addressed. Bob Morgan who is the director of the department of natural resources served as the moderator for the workshop and said, "Water is an interesting subject and in all of the years that I have worked with water I believe we will recall the 2002 water year and look back upon its significance. Water always seems to stir up some controversy either a well has run dry or someone upstream is taking someone else's water. Water doesn't change. People will still retain their water shares even though in some cases a strip mall now sits on their land. We have been taught that these water shares are valuable. Since the day the pioneers came into the Salt Lake valley, the first thing they did was to start digging ditches so they could irrigate some fields and grow some food. That ethic has carried on today."

Morgan introduced the panelists for the water discussion which included Dianne Nielson, director of the department of environmental quality, Warren Peterson, attorney for the Utah Water Users Association, Gene Shawcroft, assistant general manager for the Central Utah Project and Ron Thompson from the Washington County Conservation District.

Nielson said, "I come from the Midwest and they use certified witchers with a forked stick and sometimes a ban saw to identify new water sources, I hope it doesn't come to that here. Is it a little late for new solutions, when the water trucks are out? What do we need to be doing to avoid this problem in the future to assure we have the quantity and quality of water that we need. This year people who have been downstream from wastewater facilities have been warned not to swim in these waters. These facilities were in compliance but one of the critical functions is having enough flow to manage contaminants. With the lower stream flows we lost that buffer capacity.

"In those streams from a health perspective some community water sources that have been used for years at this point might not meet arsenic and lead requirements. Sometimes things change, contaminant levels change over time. The fight ends up being over what is healthy and what is not. Whether it is a healthy, quality water for culinary use or an irrigation use makes a difference in the cost of the water. Availability of drinking water has an impact on growth.

The Green River supplies the water needs of Green River City.

"Some high school students on the Wasatch Front were asked to identify where their water came from and only 5 percent of them could identify the source of their drinking water. I expect that number would be much higher in rural Utah.

"This disconnection from the resource is part of the problem. To protect resources upstream should be a priority so we don't have to spend as many resources down stream to clean it up," said Nielson.

Thompson said, "When the well runs dry it is too late to start the planning process. The drought teaches us where the weak link is. I remember as a child going to St. George where they had brown lawns and were given tickets for washing their cars. They began to diversify their water sources. Their population grew from 13,000 in 1970, 30,000 in 1980, 47,000 in 1990 and over 100,000 in the year 2000.

"The precipitation this year is 30 percent of normal. There is a drought across the U.S. The watershed is in poor condition. Drought has long tern effects which cause severe problems in the local economies. Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton said 40 percent of the U.S. is in a drought. The projected population for southern Utah in the 2020s is 200,000 people and by 2050, 400,000 people. How do we plan water resources for that growth?

"Development of enough water resources that will handle that growth will come with a significant price tag. How do we develop water for people and preserve the environment? We have to play by the rules when developing resources and deal with environmental issues, regardless of how we feel about them. Costs must be shared in finding resources. A balance must be struck in bringing all water systems to healthy compliance. Taxation and the burden on water rates is a complex issue without easy answers. A politically quick solution might solve one problem but cause other problems. The rapid growth in Washington County couldn't have happened without resource balance. The question for the future is how to balance cost to make more people winners," said Thompson.

Peterson said, "Nevada and Utah contain the most federal and state land of any of the states. Water is a limiting resource. The drought has brought to the attention that we have been selling water too cheap in a desert and using too much. Competition for the resource will make the resource more expensive. Most municipalities do not charge enough for their water to replace systems. Their budgeting did not include costs of upkeep in most cases. Most municipalities need to increase their storage capacity. We need to increase pressure for funding and look at water projects down the road 20-30 years on the planning horizon.

"Most of the easy water has been developed. How do you price water? We need participation from the water users and make sure they are implementing wise practices. We need a unified water conservation plan. There is a website which gives water conservation tips;

"We need to place the emphasis on water development. The agriculture people are hurting this year. They are selling off herds and the effects of the drought will be long term. It is accelerating the decline of rural economies.

Water flows down Cottonwood Creek in this photo by Rue Ware.

"In urban areas, we are the third most urbanized state in the union now; there has been development without sensitivity to the water structure. The canals aren't being taken care of and when the water runs out of the ditch, all hell breaks loose. Education and a land use planning committee will help protect resources. Why build in places that destroys the resource for others," questioned Peterson.

Shawcroft said, "Back at the beginning of the Central Utah Project in the 40s and 50s growth regulation was not an issue. The CUP was created to store a portion of the Colorado River which otherwise goes down stream. A series of exchanges have been created to collect water from the south slope of the Uintas and the Strawberry and divert it to the Wasatch Front. The water rights for the project are relatively new from 1965. The project would make more water available through storage for use. There was much criticism of the project at its inception. There has been no criticism this year. I've heard from a lot of people how glad they were that Jordanelle and the Strawberry projects were finished.

"In reference to being disconnected from the resource. One high school student who was on a field trip to tour CUP projects asked why we needed alfalfa. On the Strawberry diversion with the first plan it diverted 314,400 acre feet of water which was used for irrigation, municipal and fish flows. With the next step, more water was used for municipal and industrial and less for agriculture and irrigation. This has been the trend on all the systems," said Shawcroft.

The panel of water experts fielded questions from the audience. One person wanted to know why the state doesn't encourage people with wells to hook up to a culinary system when one is available. The panel answered that it is a requirement of the state to provide safe drinking water for the people. Programs and management are dealt with at the local level and they believed the key would be in educating those reluctant to hook up; letting those people know what they are getting could be a possible solution.

The issue of educating the youth in matters of water resources and agriculture were discussed. Programs such as agriculture in the class room is available as well as Utah State extension programs and Farm Bureau volunteers which go into the classrooms and teach students about agriculture. It was pointed out that any teacher can request ag in the classroom materials and they are free of charge. Also a water poster contest is sponsored each year which helps students understand where water comes from. The Emery County Water Conservancy District participates in this contest yearly and the panel mentioned how Emery County wins every year.

Water pricing is a complex issue and an audience member wondered if there is a potential to do anything about the water pricing in Utah? The panel believed that pressure in this area could cause waste in an area or conservation as the case might be. Base rates must be set to cover costs and any overages should be set aside to cover additional purposes. The panel agreed that this should be done at the local level. The panel stressed again that the easy water has been developed and additional water sources will become more expensive. This will be the debate of the future. The panel agreed that the focus of the future should be planning, conservation and education. There is a lot of room for improvement in each of these areas they stressed.

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