‘Little room for error’: Legislators highlight pending water bills, conservation project funding

ST. GEORGE — Members of the Utah Legislature came together for a press conference Monday afternoon that focused on pending water legislation and the overall need for state lawmakers and others to keep a long view of water conservation and development.

This January 2020 file photo shows Utah Speaker of the House Brad Wilson on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives, in Salt Lake City | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

“It’s not lost on anyone that Utah is not just the fastest growing state in the country but also the second driest state in the Country,” House Speaker Brad Wilson said during the press conference. “Because of that, there is little room for error in terms of how we manage our water resources.”

Up to 70% of Utah’s new water comes from water conservation, with 30% estimated to come from new water infrastructure, Senate President Stuart Adams said.

In general, Wilson, Adams and a handful of other lawmakers spoke to reporters about legislation that would impact the state as a whole, while also emphasizing some regional pursuits like the preservation of the Great Salt Lake.

With the projection that Utah’s iconic lake could disappear in as little as five years, lawmakers are focusing efforts on better conservation and management of the landmark. This has led to Wilson and Adams running a bill that will establish the office of the Great Salt Lake Coordinator. The purpose of the new position is to bring the management of the lake under one agency versus the seven agencies that oversee different aspects of the shrinking water body.

While those agencies have done their jobs well, Wilson said, it was time to unify their efforts and do away with any overlap in authority and the issues that can accompany them.

“We believe that the Great Salt Lake needs to speak with one unified voice,” Wilson said.

In this file photo, Angelic Lemmon, a park ranger for Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, walks across reef-like structures called microbialites, exposed by receding waters at the Great Salt Lake, near Salt Lake City, Sept. 28, 2022 | AP Photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

Another bill Wilson highlighted is House Bill 307, from Rep. Calvin Musselman. Titled “Utah Water Ways,” the bill would create a public-private, nonprofit partnership that coordinates messaging regarding water use and conservation across the state.

“So every Utahn has clarity about what they can do to help use water efficiently,” Wilson said.

The nonprofit will also help coordinate grants for water efficiency and conservation programs. It will also accept private donations to help move that work ahead.

Locally, Karry Rathje, a spokeswoman for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, told St. George News in an email following the news conference that the district supports HB 307 as it promotes and funds “water conservation education and programs, which directly aligns with district interests.”

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, who represents parts of multiple counties including Washington, Iron, Beaver, Milliard and Juab, noted that the state has “diverse water challenges.”

“There are different challenges we face and they require different solutions,” he said, and pointed to examples within this district.

At Sand Hollow Reservoir, Hurricane, Utah, Jan. 25, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

In Washington County, efforts are underway to create a regional water re-use system that provides more secondary or irrigation-quality water for outdoor watering. Re-using, or recycling the water for a regional secondary water system, will also help preserve the culinary, or drinking-quality water Washington County has.

The reuse project in Washington County is estimated to run over $600 million, Rathje said, and will allow the water district to expand the treatment of wastewater for community use.

“This project could add up to 16,000 acre-feet of water per year initially and increase as the population expands,” Rathje said.

Vickers continued, saying that in Iron and Beaver counties, water managers and elected officers are working on ways to recharge underground aquifers that have been impacted by groundwater depletion. Further north in Millard County are water issues related to preserving surface water resources that are subject to evaporation.

None of those projects make sense for northern Utah where the focus is on sending more water to the Great Salt Lake, Vickers said.

Wilson and Adams said they believe the state will put at least $500 million to $600 million toward water conservation, development and conservation programs this year. This will either match or exceed the dollars put forth by the state last year.

At the LaVerkin hot springs, Hurricane, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George News.

When asked by a reporter if any of the proposed legislation or spending would benefit Southern Utah, Wilson said it would and pointed to a desalination project currently underway in Washington County.

The project in question relates to the LaVerkin hot springs, which involve local, state and federal authorities.

Formerly known as the Pah Tempe hot springs, they produce approximately 5,000 gallons of water per minute, which translates to 7 million gallons a day, at a temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit. It also dumps 109,000 tons of salt into the Virgin River, which makes its way down the Colorado River. It is considered a primary contaminator to the water system overseen by the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

“Desalination isn’t cheap,” Rathje said concerning the project.

Between the local, state and federal funding that is likely to go toward dealing with the salt from the LaVerkin hot springs, Wilson said Washington County is likely to see “significant investment” pumped into the project in the following years.

Combined with other water-centric projects, he added that “a big investment (of state funds) this year will be made in Washington County.”

In this file photo, nearly 120,000 square feet of grass was replaced with water-wise landscaping in Washington County, including this street median in St. George, Utah, May 19, 2022 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George News

Other water projects the Legislature is looking at funding involve cloud-seeding, sub-surface drip systems, ways to best optimize agricultural water use and the continuation of the state’s turf-removal program.

Introduced last year and administered through local water districts, the state provides for individuals who decide to replace their lawns with more water-efficient landscaping. The going rate in Washington County is a $2 rebate per square foot of turf removed.

“We’ve had a remarkable response to our Water Efficient Landscape Rebate program, and additional funding is needed to keep up with the demand we’re experiencing,” Rathje said.

Though legislators highlighted how they plan to address the state’s water issues, they also emphasized the need to work with other states on the matter while also keeping a long view, as they want to secure water for future generations.

“We’re not going to let the state dry up on water,” Adams said. “We can and will fix our water problems.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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