The Water Tap: Farewell, and some final words on what to watch for in water
St. George Spectrum & Daily News
This article is the last in a series addressing topics relevant to water security in southwestern Utah. Look for stories online and in print that feature updates on ongoing water issues, interviews with experts and explorations of how we can ensure a better water future for our growing communities. Thank you for reading.
During my 21 months with The Spectrum & Daily News, I have grown to love this community as I've watched it grow all around me on a limited water supply. When I moved to St. George from New Orleans during the height of the pandemic in May of 2020, I was coming from a newsroom where we dealt with topics related to too much water — flooding, sea level rise, relentless rain, hurricanes.
On my first day in town here, temperatures hit 100 degrees F with humidity at 13%. I watched tumbleweeds blow across my new neighborhood as I read about the nearby waterfall attraction at Gunlock State Park, something I still have never seen running. At the St. George Regional Airport, the weather station didn't record a single drop of precipitation for the first 240 days I was in town. It's hot here, and dry.
But we knew that, right? This is the northern edge of the Mojave Desert, the unique beauty of which is celebrated by the 5 million people who visited Zion National Park in 2021 as well as the 9,000 people who decided to move to Washington County between July 2020 and July 2021. Our sparkling, modest Virgin River shapes Zion's iconic sandstone canyons, sprouts the creekside Cottonwoods that shade its deer and cacti and sustains several small fish species found nowhere else in the world. On drier slopes further southwest, the local Red Cliffs Desert Reserve is home to at least 17 species of mammals, 44 species of birds, 8 species of amphibians and 35 species of reptiles, including the threatened but impressively desert-hearty Mojave Desert Tortoise.
Sometimes, though, we forget we live in a desert. We water grass in park strips we don't use. We grow non-native plant species and rolls of thirsty alfalfa that get shipped overseas. We build a "Waterwalk" feature on Main Street downtown that once flowed from the "emergent natural springs" originating at Brooks Nature Park, but now trickles through algae as a reminder of the contrast between past optimism and changing times. And still, we build, build, build.
Given the chaotic influences of climate change, occasionally forgetting that we live in a desert that is also experiencing what scientists recently declared is the worst drought in 1,200 years, is understandable. Here too, we sometimes deal with too much water. St. George flooded in August of 2020, sucking an entire car into a sinkhole at the Ramada Inn in the center of town. In June of 2021, flash flooding caused millions of dollars of damage in Zion National Park's gateway town of Springdale, displacing residents and stranding ill-parked tourists who got stuck in the mud. The next month, hundreds of people had to rip out their carpet after more than 300 homes flooded in Enoch. Their sewer system simply wasn't built to accommodate the sudden, heavy rains that fell on a very localized area — a phenomenon the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts we will see more often in the future.
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Unfortunately, this occasional excess is not enough to solve our water deficit and often cannot even be captured or put to any local use, since mud and floating debris force water managers to close the intakes to local reservoirs to keep them clean. So, our desert home remains gripped by record low soil moisture and a drought that, last March, was labeled "exceptional" and triggered a statewide emergency executive order. Today, the U.S. Drought Monitor shows southern Utah in a state of "severe drought" with very limited improvement since September 2021, though now is the time of year when we are usually recovering from desiccation and refilling our reservoirs for the summer ahead.
As much as I have loved Utah's unrivaled beauty and my adventures here — from my five years in Logan to my residence in this opposite corner of the state — I won't be here to report on the water issues that come to pass as a result of low snowpack forecasting another exceptionally dry year ahead. After nearly two years as your local environment reporter, I will be moving to an even hotter and drier place to chronicle the increasingly sweltering climate from Phoenix as The Arizona Republic's new Climate Reporter.
Nearly one hundred of you have reached out to me by phone, mail or email to comment on the stories I've published for The Spectrum & Daily News, and I appreciate you all. Some of you mailed me books. About 30 of you showed up last July to our The Water Tap series in-person event at the library to discuss water issues as a community.
I trust that you will stay engaged and keep reading the environmental and political coverage of water issues that will continue to be produced by my coworkers at The Spectrum & Daily News. If you are interested in staying in touch with me, my email address will forward to my new inbox and my phone number will remain active for the foreseeable future. If you are interested in checking out my coverage from Phoenix, your subscription to The Spectrum & Daily News will grant you access to stories in The Arizona Republic, which is also part of the USA TODAY Network of papers. Any financial support you can give to the Report For America nonprofit program will help ensure that another environment reporter takes my place.
I also trust that you will keep asking questions — journalists aren't the only ones who are allowed to do this — and keep listening to each other's concerns. In a report released in December by the University of Utah's Gardner Institute, Washington and Iron counties again ranked as some of the fastest-growing areas in the state and the nation. But, while local growth rockets forward, the two pipeline projects that are meant to bring the water necessary for future residents— Washington County's Lake Powell Pipeline and Iron County's Pine Valley Water Supply pipeline — are both moving at a glacial pace. Many anticipate that neither will get built at all, given regional opposition and intensifying fights over water everywhere in the West. Yet in October, the Utah State Division of Water Resources announced that, according to their calculations, Washington County has just 10 years to find a new source of water.
Given this situation, water conservation education events like the Rubber Ducky Race through the Washington County Water Conservancy District's Red Hills Desert Garden last month or their "Clock-On" rock-themed conservation campaign that asked residents to be mindful of the time of day when watering their lawns are cute but not enough. Ask for more. Vote for more.
Here are some suggested questions to keep asking those in charge:
Why are we not mandating residential water conservation measures in this desert ecosystem? We've already seen that voluntary cuts do not seem to have solved the problem. That the chain of command is unclear is not a valid excuse for not taking this step. (Related legislation: Neither House Bill 95 nor House Bill 121 have yet passed in the current session of the Utah Legislature.)
When will the turf removal rebate program the WCWCD promised us last June begin? Similarly, when will we talk about turf removal in Iron County? Such programs, which incentivize outdoor water savings with rebates for residents who replace their grass with desert landscaping, have been found to conserve more water than any other single action a community can take and have been in place for years in other desert communities like Las Vegas, Arizona and southern California as well as, more recently, other parts of Utah.
When will local municipalities take action to remove public non-functional turf and limit other sources of public water waste? The WCWCD says it does not have jurisdiction to enforce these changes. Ask your local municipal water district managers to answer this question.
Isn't there anything more we could do to limit leaks from water infrastructure, which hover around 15%? Doing so would stretch the local supply and cut costs for consumers at the same time. The WCWCD says its overall system has dropped to 13% loss (still a lot of treated water), but that some local municipalities have higher rates. (Related legislation: House Bill 115, which sought to better detect and fix leaks, failed (again) to pass in the current session.)
We are making progress towards metering secondary water use, but is it enough? House Bill 242, which would improve secondary metering so the state has a better idea of how much water we are using, looks poised to pass in the current legislative session. The Utah state engineer has also stated that this issue is a priority for her. But our recent investigation into water diversion permit mismanagement by the U.S. Forest Service on Utah lands suggests the problem is massive.
What are we doing to protect the ecosystems where our water originates and the species that rely on them? Three House Bills (37, 118 and 131) all calling for improved management of the natural habitats that produce our drinking water, including aquifers, wetlands and watersheds, will likely pass in this legislative session. That's good news, but the implementation of these plans may require some public follow-through and support for sensitive species in these areas.
What happens if the Lake Powell Pipeline doesn't get federally permitted or is blocked by the six other Colorado Basin states fighting over the same water? The Division of Water Resources has calculated that Washington County only has 10 years of water left. The pipeline is their solution to that problem, but its approval is far from certain and may not even be possible to build in that timeframe. Iron County's Pine Valley Water Supply pipeline faces similar obstacles.
Are Utah state officials more committed to pushing the Lake Powell Pipeline project than they are to pursuing solutions through conservation? More than $40 million has already been spent on researching and lobbying for this water pipeline. Project proponents say that water conservation won't be enough and that buying water rights from farmers will be more expensive than building the pipeline. But not everyone agrees (applies to PVWS pipeline in Iron County as well). An investigation by ProPublica found that your lawmakers may be blocking water conservation initiatives while pushing for more infrastructure. Ask them why.
Even if these pipelines get approved and built, how will we pay for them? The funding models for both the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Pine Valley Water Supply pipeline are currently very fuzzy and hotly contested. It's your money and some of it is already going to these projects through impact fees, water rates and property taxes, and being used to lobby for them.
What happens if we build these pipelines and then the sources run dry or we grow beyond what they can provide? Both pipeline projects will have to be re-evaluated and re-permitted by federal authorities after about 50 years. And even if they are reauthorized, there is no guarantee there will still be water to withdraw from these natural sources. Even now, there is a concern as to whether there is as much water as either of these pipelines seek to transport, and the climate is drying.
Are we talking enough about the use of water to grow feed crops like alfalfa, some of which just gets exported overseas? St. George residents used to grow cotton. We don't do that anymore, partly because it's not a suitable habitat for that crop and we don't need it. Approximately 75% of Utah's water use goes to agriculture. Some improvements in the efficiency of those systems have been made in recent years, but discussion of agricultural water use is still disproportionate to its role in shortages.
How is the changing climate being factored into planning for our future water access? Climate change is a certainty and will result in less snowmelt and reduced river flows throughout the West. Yet, in 2021, some Utah legislators still expressed doubt in the science and faith that the cycle may reverse. This is not to your benefit.
When will we start talking publicly about limiting building in southwest Utah to protect the quality of life for those already here? Most of you moved here or enjoy living here because of the quiet surroundings and access to nature. If the revenue model continues to rely on building more homes, that will all change. Ask if those involved in permitting, construction and real estate stand to gain more from this frenzy than the rest of the community.
More on current water legislation:The Water Tap on the Utah Legislature: Bills, bills everywhere and not a drop to drink
Here I end The Water Tap series with a total of 37 stories analyzing local water concerns since July of 2020, plus news coverage, special water projects and 13 questions to keep asking. It seems fitting to finish on a prime number for a topic that cannot be easily broken down without many problematic remainders. Much like how some of the public messaging on water concerns comes across, prime numbers are used by software engineers to encrypt information. But that doesn't mean there isn't a solution. Mathematicians refer to prime numbers as building blocks, which means that even the largest and most complex integers can, given enough time, be broken down into manageable units. Thanks for reading and for enduring my math jokes, social commentary, environmental critiques and aquatic alliterations.