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Water restrictions, long-term solutions contemplated in Utah drought emergency

Posted at 4:04 PM, Jun 09, 2021

ST. GEORGE, Utah — The Washington County Water Conservancy District is implementing new restrictions and urging the cities it serves to do more to cut water use in the state's ongoing drought emergency.

"We have enough water we think to get us through this season. But we have to conserve. We have to use water responsibly," said Brock Belnap, the district's assistant general manager.

On Wednesday, the Washington County Water Conservancy District — which supplies water to one of the state's most booming areas — issued some new regulations and recommendations for its municipal customers. They include:

  • An "excess water surcharge" starting at $1 per 1,000 gallons on the county’s highest water users
  • Asking cities to audit their own facilities to cut water use by additional 10%
  • Asking cities to start converting non-functional lawns to water-efficient landscapes
  • Asking cities to pass and enforce ordinances limiting or banning grass in new development projects (commercial and residential)
  • Ban outdoor watering from 10am to 8pm every day
  • Eliminate water features in any new developments
  • Require commercial car washes to recycle water on-site
  • Set lawn limits and water budgets for golf courses

"We’ve adopted the state of Utah’s most aggressive conservation goal in our planning," Belnap said in an interview with FOX 13 on Wednesday, adding that the district has reduced its water use by 30% since 2000.

The district has already taken measures to encourage a preservation of water supply. For example, a secondary water system is used to keep the St. George area's famed golf courses watered without straining other systems. But Belnap said they are pushing golf courses and developers of new ones to change how they are designed to not be big water consumers.

"Narrow your fairways and your greens. Can you use desert landscaping? Can you minimize the footprint?Because grass is one of the largest users of water," he said.

As southwestern Utah continues to grow, Belnap said more conservation is needed to keep up with the projected demand.

"We are limited to the Virgin River Basin as our supply, and the climate change projections are it is diminishing," he said.

A number of water districts are joining Washington County's in imposing tougher drought-related systems. FOX 13 reported on Monday the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which serves a large chunk of northern Utah, is moving to a "three strikes you're out" rule with warnings and then a complete shutoff of secondary water for repeat violators.

On Utah's Capitol Hill, Governor Spencer Cox said Tuesday that he is in talks with legislative leaders about short term impacts and long-term solutions for the drought, which could be the worst in state history. He issued a new executive order requiring state facilities to cut outdoor water use and is urging Utahns to only water lawns two or three times a week, depending on where they live. Roughly 60% of residential water use is used on lawns and outdoors (agriculture is still the state's largest water user).

The Utah State Legislature has set aside money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for water conservation measures.

"We have set aside about $100 million in federal money for water optimization," said Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who is part of a working group of lawmakers dealing with water issues and the drought emergency.

Sen. McKell said they are considering a number of options to conserve water. Ideas being floated include incentives for Utahns to xeriscape or switch to drought-friendly plants, regulations on future developments and grasses, fixes to agricultural canals and fields to further cut water use, and moving more of the state to metering secondary water use.

Sen. McKell has passed a bill offering state grants for secondary water metering, which tracks how much water cities and residences actually use outdoors. His own district has switched to secondary water metering, with illuminating results.

"What we learned with metering, it has the potential of saving about 35% — in some areas, even more," he told FOX 13. "I was actually surprised to learn that."

When people learn how much water they actually use, Sen McKell said, it actually leads to changes in behavior.

"When people are aware of their water usage, it doesn’t increase cost, it doesn't raise the tax, it doesn't cost more," he said. "But when you're aware of your water usage compared to your neighbors, compared to your community, you actually save water."