Combatting, understanding Utah’s water crisis

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See also “University of Utah, BYU conserving water on campus

The Los Angeles California Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands apart among the city’s office buildings and strip malls just off the 405 Freeway. Nestled on a hill, the temple grounds display a diverse and lush landscape, most notably featuring a large, grassy lawn bordering the iconic and bustling Santa Monica Boulevard.

When the state of California faced a devastating drought in 2015, the Church let the 98,000 square-foot lawn die — trading its famously lush, green aesthetic for a dead, brown appearance, as described in a Los Angeles Times article.

On Oct. 15, Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency because of the drought in Utah.

“The drought is at a level unseen for many years and will not be solved with a small series of storms,” Herbert said in the executive order. “In some areas, the drought is at, or near, historic levels.”

Despite the governor’s declaration, satellite images show grassy, green lawns outside the St. George and Jordan River temples and across countless suburban neighborhoods throughout Utah.

Landscape architect and water management expert Brady Pitcher said he believes the idea of a green lawn is a widely spread cultural trend in Utah.

“Utahns love their green grass. They like to take care of it; they like to mow it; they like to overwater it,” Pitcher said. “It’s a cultural thing, and until we make that cultural shift, it’s gonna take a lot to overcome a drought.”

Last summer, the world watched as Cape Town, South Africa, came dangerously close to running out of water. National Geographic estimates Mexico City, Mexico; Jakarta, India; Melbourne, Australia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, could soon face a similar water crisis.

With historic droughts plaguing the state, Utah may join cities across the world facing severe water crises.

Understanding the problem

According to the United States Geological Survey, 96.5 percent of the world’s water is ocean water and only 2.5 percent of global water is freshwater. Of that fresh water, 98.8 percent is held in glaciers and ice caps or in groundwater, leaving 1.2 percent as surface water and other freshwater sources. This means while water constitutes 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, only 1.2 percent of global water serves human and animal needs.

One of the most popular sources of water in the western U.S. is the Colorado River, which flows from the Rocky Mountains to northern Mexico. In the 1920s cities along the river’s route began to divvy up the water supply. Today the river supplies water to 30 million people in seven states — including part of Utah — and part of Mexico, according to a Smithsonian article.  

Utah State University professor Chris Lant explained the first thing people need to understand about the water crisis is that all water issues are local.

“What you’re really thinking about when you hear global water crisis is it’s really that there are local water crises in an increasing number of places,” Lant said.

He said Utah is a naturally arid state with a long dry season and a lot of variability, so the state relies heavily on snowmelt to fill water reservoirs. He said as climates continue to change and water shortages spread, the way we share water will become increasingly important.

“The issue is, if there’s not enough to go around, then who gets it and who doesn’t?” Lant said.

Despite Utah’s naturally arid climate, Lant said compared to other states, Utah ranks among the highest in water use per capita. And as populations in Utah continue to grow water use will grow as well, further complicating water use issues.

“If the population continues to climb but the amount of water available does not, then the per capita water use has to go down, and that’s a very simple equation,” Lant said.

Main water uses

Lant explained Utahns have to be increasingly picky about how and where the state allocates water especially considering growing population rates. He said the two areas where Utah misuses water most are agriculture and landscape.

According to the Council of State Governments West, 78.13 percent of Utah water is used for irrigation. Much of that irrigation goes to alfalfa production.

In 2016 Utah produced 2,226,000 tons of alfalfa, according to the state agriculture overview. Alfalfa is known as a particularly water intensive crop.

A University of Idaho study shows one ton of alfalfa requires five inches of water, meaning in 2016 Utah used 11,130,000 inches of water just for alfalfa.

Lant suggests this is one area where Utah can cut back on water use.

“When water is scarce, how much of that water are we going to use to irrigate alfalfa for export when that water could be used for the cities as they grow at huge rates?” he said. “And can we use food imports as a way to access other regions’ water resources? That’s one way to combat our water scarcity problem.”

In addition to reevaluating agricultural water use, Lant said urban outdoor water use is “a great area of opportunity to conserve water.”

According to the Utah Division of Water Resource, residents of Rich County had the highest water use rates in 2015 with 1,240 gallons of water per capita per day. Much of this water use is allocated to farming, as three-fourths of the county’s land is used for agriculture. (Riley Waldman)

BYU landscape management professor Greg Jolley said water use is one of the first things he teaches students to consider when designing a property. He explained, however, even though water use should be important to a landscape architect or designer, it may not be a priority for a client.

“Anytime you are looking at a property and looking at creating a design, that should always be one of the things you are evaluating. But it’s not always considered,” Jolley said. “It may not be valued by a homeowner. They may be thinking, ‘I just want it to look pretty.'”

Along with this emphasis on the exterior of the landscape, Jolley said many homeowners don’t understand how to properly use their irrigation systems and often overwater their lawns.

“People think an irrigation system is going to do everything, and it’s not,” he said. “There still needs to be that human element.”

Sprinkler Supply Company smart technology specialist Joe Jackson said one way homeowners can improve their irrigation systems is with a smart controller system.

These systems use data like natural precipitation, climate, soil and plant material to help regulate irrigation and minimize water waste, and they make homeowner management easier.

“If I were a homeowner, I’d be telling every neighbor, every friend to go buy a smart controller,” Jackson said.

The type of irrigation system can also make a big difference in water efficiency, as Jackson said. Many people still use traditional spray sprinklers which are 50 percent water efficient, whereas drip systems are 90 percent water efficient, according to Jackson.

Despite innovations in irrigation technology, Pitcher said the irrigation industry and homeowners are slow to adopt changes. He said he believes real change will require changes in public policy.

Solutions for change

Counties and municipalities across Utah have already started making changes in an effort to improve and limit water use.

There are 15 water conservancy districts throughout the state, created to help promote and provide sustainable water practices in each of the designated regions.

Pleasant Grove has implemented a scheduled watering system for citizens to help manage water use. Depending on house number, homeowners are assigned specific days of the week when they are allowed to irrigate their properties.

A first-time violation of the watering day plan results in a warning, however second and third-time violations result in disconnection from the secondary water system and fees to then be reconnected, according to the city’s website.

While watering day efforts like these demonstrate a concerted effort to combat drought, Lant said lasting improvement requires more drastic changes.

“It’s a good approach to deal with a short-term drought. But in the longer term you actually have to change what’s on the ground to plants and landscaping that don’t need as much water,” he said.

Orem has taken a fiscal approach to water shortages. The city website outlines “an increasing rate structure for culinary water.” Water use is divided into four tiers depending on inches of water and an increasing cost per gallon is assigned to each tier. Tier one water use is priced at 88 cents per gallon while tier four water use is priced at $1.75 per gallon.

Lant said reexamining the value of water could play a crucial role in an individual’s willingness and sense of urgency to conserve.  

“A lot of times water is essentially free, so there’s no incentive to conserve something that’s free, whereas we recycle 99.9 percent of gold,” Lant said. “So I do think that it’s clearly the case that if you increase the price of water people will be more inclined to conserve it.”

Ultimately, Lant said he believes the nation needs to implement changes in a variety of fields and employ multiple strategies to successfully address water use issues. And as Jolley said, people need to recognize individual responsibility.  

“I think the big idea here is that water is becoming scarce and populations are increasing,” Jolley said. “So there’s more pressure on that water resource. And we really do have to think about our individual stewardship and how it is that we’re using water in our landscapes and our homes, and we have to be responsible for that.”

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