Cache County’s water future threatened by growth

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LOGAN – Utah’s population is growing and it doesn’t look to be slowing down. In the last 30 years, the state’s population has <a href=”http://business.utah.gov/news/northeast-utah-dominates-cities-rise/” target=”_blank”>doubled</a>. Almost 3 million people live in the state now and it is expected that another 2.5 million will be living here in 2050.

As the population increases, the state’s water supply won’t. Residents of Utah may have to learn to get by with less. According to Kelly Kopp, a Utah State University professor who does research with landscape water use, it will take some work, but Utah has the potential to be a future leader in water use.

“There are lots of examples in the country where incredible growth has happened and they’ve maintained water use at the level that they started,” she said. “And I can see that we have potential to do that into the future.”

On average, Cache County receives more water than the rest of the state. According to Kopp, the Cache County area receives about 18 inches of precipitation annually while the rest of the state receives about 13. Because of the excess water, the <a href=”http://www.water.utah.gov/InterstateStreams/Bear/PDF/BRDev.PDF” target=”_blank”>Bear River Development Act</a> was passed in 1991 to allow other areas in the state to use the water.

“Cache County has a water supply,” said Cache County Water Manager Bob Fotheringham. “The problem that we’ll run into in Cache County is water rights to use the water supply.”

Fotheringham said that of the summertime Bear River flows, Cache County receives 60,000 acre-feet of it, Box Elder receives 60,000 acre-feet, the Weber Basin gets 50,000 acre-feet and the Jordan Valley gets 50,000 acre-feet. He said that one of the needed solutions for Cache Valley will be to develop and store the wintertime water flows in order to have some saved for summer.

“We’re at that brink right now,” he said. “We are at the brink of something has got to change because we don’t have the ability to get additional water rights. We don’t have the additional water that we need.”

One of the purposes of the Bear River Development Act was to direct the Utah Division of Water Resources to develop reservoirs and facilities in order to store the excess water coming from the Bear River.

“Under the Bear River Development Act, that is what those people who developed the act foresaw,” Fotheringham said. “They basically said that if we wanted to develop this water it has to be through a project and it has to be stored water. I don’t know how else you will manage that water that runs to the Great Salt Lake during the wintertime unless you store it.”

Another option for managing water in Utah and Cache Valley is a controversial one – converting water used for agriculture to other uses. According to Todd Adams of the Utah Divisions of Water Resources, 82% of the water used in Utah is for agricultural purposes.

“Is it a straight conversion? No,” Adams said. “Will it cost money to do that? Without a doubt. We still got to eat and have an economy based on agriculture a little bit.”

There aren’t many options. Either water will come from new, developed reservoirs, or it will be water that comes from converted agriculture use.

“Do you want Cache County to look like it does now 60 years from now,” Fotheringham said. “Meaning do you want agriculture to be here? If you’re going to have increased populations you have to get water from somewhere. So you either develop your supplies – the Bear River Development Act – or you take the water from an existing use, which if you are going to move it in Cache County, it’s going to be from agriculture.”

Kopp said that at least some of the water conversion has already happened and some will happen naturally as agricultural land is sold and developed.

“Those conversions from agricultural water, that’s happening all the time,” she said. “And that border area in between urban and agricultural areas, it can be contentious, not a lot in Utah right now, but in the future could get that way.”

Developing new water sources and the conversion of existing water sources to new uses are two necessary options to look at for Cache County’s future. The other obvious route that can at least help soften the problem is water conservation.

Fotheringham said that one of the biggest problems with conservation is informing and educating the public.

“Conservation requires organization and it costs money to conserve,” he said. “It’s not free. Water conservation is not free to get the public to actually conserve water. It requires a lot of educational information, seminars and those kinds of things to get the education out there so people will change their behaviors and actually conserve water.”

Adams said that through efforts such as the Slow the Flow campaign, Utah is starting to conserve water. From 2000 to 2010, the per capita water use dropped about 18 percent.

“As a whole we’re starting to see that response,” he said. “After rainstorms and those kinds of things you’d see the water demand go right back up. Now you actually see people turning off their spigots and not watering for two or three days or whatever is needed – which is good. So they are doing the right things for the right reasons.”

Improved technology and changes to building code are two efforts that are helping conserve.

“Things like climate-based irrigation controllers that communicate with local weather stations allow very, very efficient and accurate amounts of irrigation,” Kopp said. “There are soil moisture sensors out there that do the same thing and very, very efficient sprinkler nozzles that have come onto the market in recent years. I think a lot of water use will be reduced simply by the advances in technology and because of that the growth will happen without any serious limitations do to water availability.”

Kopp, who works with the Slow the Flow program, said that helping people realize how much water they are using, especially for landscaping, is one of the program’s biggest challenges.

“I’m never going to be one to say that we shouldn’t have landscapes and we shouldn’t have lawns and that because I think we can have those things and I think we can maintain that aspect of our quality of life,” she said. “But I also know that we can do it a lot more efficiently. That’s the biggest challenge, people just don’t know what they are putting out there.”

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