When will the water run out?
A s one of the oldest cities in Utah, Lehi has a rich historic heritage—and per the state’s long-standing laws regarding natural resources—preeminence to owning water.
Water in Utah is divided on a first-come, first-serve basis, and when Lehi’s first settlers arrived in the 1850s, they promptly laid claim to the surrounding springs and creeks to shore up the then farm-centric community’s future. Despite its seniority, for the last several years Lehi has purchased supplementary water from third parties to supply the community’s needs.
Managing the city’s water needs changed significantly with the 2006 arrival of chip manufacturer, Micron Technology—then using the IM Flash moniker. The high-tech manufacturer needed large amounts of water for its cooling towers, and that water could never be turned off without costing the company millions of dollars per day, which meant that Lehi needed to revamp its city water system and secure new, backup water supplies.
Lehi has worked to secure these backup water supplies, but staying ahead of the city’s growth has proven challenging, according to public works director, Dave Norman. “The city has planned for growth,” he says, “it’s just happening much quicker than we had projected. So far we are handling it, but it is a concern.”
Air quality has dominated local headlines in more recent years, yet historically it was water, by virtue of its natural scarcity in Utah, that determined who thrived and who died. So much so that the rules by which water is traded and controlled are enshrined in the state constitution in the form of “rights.”
Yet water is a finite resource—particularly in a closed-basin, desert state where the amount of rainfall narrowly exceeds evaporation rates most years. And the water is running out, posing a potential barrier to the state’s growth aspirations and a budding, but thirsty tech industry.
These hypothetical water shortages won’t pan out the way they’re often imagined by residents—water isn’t going to stop flowing from your tap, except in the event of delivery system failure. But there will be economic consequences, state water managers say, which means Utahns will need to decide exactly how they want their state to grow before the laws of supply and demand make the decision for them.
When will the water run out?
It might seem as though measuring water use would be a relatively simple affair—you slap a water meter on some houses, take some readings, and tally up the total use for a given area. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.
Complicating factors such as the lack of water meters in large portions of the state, the fragmented and political nature of Utah’s water management, and even relatively mundane obstacles like leaking pipes—which account for a not-insignificant amount of water loss—mean nobody can give a truly solid figure as to just how much water the state uses, nor how many people its natural resources can support.
But while the details remain up for debate, there is general agreement around two basic conclusions. Most of the state’s water managers agree that although per capita use is declining, the state’s conservation success has been outstripped by rapid population growth. They also agree that barring some change in course, this growth will eventually outstrip the state’s current water resources.
Utahns are getting smarter about how they use their water and, in general, using less of it, according to Candice Hasenyager, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, the state agency responsible for tracking water use and planning large water projects. In 2015, she says, Utah used approximately 239 gallons of water per person per day. In 2018, that number had inched upward to 243 gallons per day—a figure that likely represents an increase in efficiency, Hasenyager says, because in 2018 Utah’s worst drought in history was recorded.
“The fact that our water use wasn’t impacted significantly, even during one of the driest years, says we’re using water better,” she says.
While Utahns as individuals may be getting better at conserving water, there are a lot more individuals living here. Ideally, the amount of water conserved by existing residents would balance out the amount of water used by those who move in, but Utah has yet to achieve this balance, according to Rachel Shilton, a section manager for the water resources division.
According to state water data, Utah consumed just shy of 790,000 acre-feet of water in 2015. By 2018, use had escalated to more than 870,000 acre-feet per year, increasing more than 10 percent in just four years. Acre-feet is a standard measurement of water, representing the amount of water needed to cover one acre with one foot of water, or roughly 325,000 gallons.
Hasenyager is hesitant to describe a timeline or conditions in which Utah would begin to experience water shortages if the current trajectory continues. Her department, she says, has been working on new models that would answer that question and determine which actions might buy Utah the most time, but it’s a complicated process.
Those models have yet to be released. But some older models put certain Utah cities running out of water as soon as 2025, though that might be a sort of worst-case scenario, according to Christopher Collard, a research analyst with the Utah Foundation. The Utah Foundation put out a series of reports on water resources and pricing in 2019. Less dire estimates have put the breaking point at 2035 or 2040.
While experts may quibble about the timeframe, “there is definitely a breaking point if people don’t change their current behaviors,” Collard says. “That’s a safe thing to say.”
We’re going to need more water
These projections weigh heavily on the mind of Laura Briefer, the director of public utilities for Salt Lake City. Like many of the state’s oldest cities, Salt Lake City has amassed significant water supplies, and it can pull the seniority card on, well, almost anyone in the event of a dispute over water ownership. Yet, with increased industrial development in the Northwest Quadrant and growing population density, Briefer says the projections are cutting it too close for comfort, even in the state’s water-wealthy capital.
“If we keep on the same trend in terms of water demand,” she says, “there’s no buffer for any kind of water supply emergency, like if you had a water contamination event or an infrastructure failure. There wouldn’t be a buffer, so we would suffer from some disruptions.”
Briefer’s concern is primarily triggered by the development of the Utah State Prison and Inland Port in the city’s Northwest Quadrant. Originally, she says, the city’s plans called primarily for residential development in that area. While it’s not yet clear exactly what kind of development will take place within the Inland Port, the potential for water-intense facilities such as data centers or food processors concerns Briefer.
The majority of Utah’s potable water supplies are currently used in residential settings, and the majority of that use takes place outdoors, watering lawns and gardens. State-wide, the vast majority of water resources are consumed by farms. Industry and high-density housing come with a different sort of water footprint that requires new kinds of water infrastructure, Briefer says.
Per-capita water use decreases when farms and large grassy lots are converted into high-rises and manufactories, Briefer explains, because there are more people per acre of land. But at the same time, the amount of water used per acre of land increases, because there are more people using water in a smaller space.
And Salt Lake isn’t experiencing these changes at nearly the same rate as its neighbors to the south. Utah County, according to Hasenyager, is among the fastest-growing regions in the state in respect to both population and water use.
It’s difficult to tease out how much of this should be attributed to the growth of the Silicon Slopes versus the general population growth it brings with it, Hasenyager says, because cities don’t report consumption by tech-related water use like data centers in a uniform way. But having a data center or chip manufacturer move into town does change the calculus for local water managers, Norman says.
“It creates a situation where we have to be very cautious and careful in making sure we can always back them up and provide the water that they need,” he says. “If a city got too many of those, it could put a large strain on their ability to serve everyone.”
Water is going to get more expensive
To say that this rapid growth in water demand could lead to “shortages” might be too harsh a term, Shilton says, because “nobody is doing nothing.” But the collision course between supply of and demand for water in Utah means residents will have to get serious about the kind of lifestyle they want to maintain—and how much they are willing to pay for it.
“With our rapid growth and a lot of these businesses coming in—which is great for our economy—we can’t all have an entire yard full of grass,” Norman concurs.
This growing emphasis on low-flow toilets and desert landscaping isn’t some environmentally conscious campaign to save the fishes—it is, from the perspective of state water managers, simply the lowest-cost option for meeting accelerating demand for water.
Utah residents and businesses have benefited from relatively low water bills because they’ve never paid the full price of what it costs to make that water available, says Matt Olsen, assistant general manager at Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. In Utah, water conservancy districts serve as wholesalers that build projects like dams and wells and sell the water to cities and residents who lack their own private supplies. Jordan Valley serves communities in the west and southwestern portions of Salt Lake County.
In the past, Olsen says, the federal government paid for the construction of large water projects in the west—including the Central Utah Project, a series of dams and pipelines that are supplying much of the water fueling the state’s current tech boom. But that money is no longer available, so the full cost of building new projects will fall to the state. This on top of the cost of maintaining existing water supplies, which a recent report to the state legislature estimated need $33 billion in repairs and upgrades.
Water conservation isn’t free. As much as Olsen might like to require the installation of water-wise plumbing fixtures and landscaping, he can’t. Landscape ordinances are established by municipalities, and plumbing standards by the state building code. The best tool in his box is incentives—literally paying people to reduce their water use so that water can be freed up for other users.
But with population growth outstripping the gains made by conservation, Hasenyager says, “There is no other way around it. We will have to increase water rates.”
Water prices across the state have already begun to escalate. Jordan Valley Water plans to increase rates between 2.5-3 percent per year for the foreseeable future. Salt Lake City plans to raise rates 5 percent per year through 2023, at which point the annual increases will increase to 6 percent. But these pale in comparison to communities like Washington County, where the local water wholesaler plans to raise rates 300 percent to cover the cost of developing new water supplies.
Lehi has also implemented a new fee schedule in which water rates will continue to rise at set intervals for the next five years. At the end of that period, Norman says, another round of rate increases is likely. “Utah is used to having inexpensive water,” he says. “Those days are gone. The inexpensive resources are gone.”
Bring your own water
Outside legacy municipalities like Salt Lake and Lehi, which have access to their own water supplies, newer cities like Eagle Mountain are trying an innovative approach to water development.
When Eagle Mountain incorporated just 23 years ago, most of the readily available water that was once up for grabs had already been snapped up by older municipalities and water districts. On top of that, they didn’t have the budget to invest in large-scale water projects, according to the city’s economic development director, Aaron Sandborn. So when large, water-guzzling businesses like Facebook and Tyson came knocking, they opened their doors—and followed up the welcome with a hefty bill.
To withdraw water from a natural resource—be it a stream, a well, or even the rain—requires a sort of bill of sale called a “water right.” These rights can be acquired in one of two ways. If, for example, someone stumbles upon a new spring that does not yet belong to someone—you can guess what the odds of this are—you can file an application with the state engineer’s office to claim the water on a first-come, first-serve basis. Or, you can buy an existing water right from someone else.
Traditionally, water suppliers use their own savings to acquire new water rights if they need to expand. But Eagle Mountain had no existing water rights, and it didn’t seem fair to stick residents with the bill—via their taxes—for the water needed to supply data centers that didn’t necessarily benefit them. So Eagle Mountain joined a growing number of Utah cities with a-bring-your-own-water policy. That is, if you want to build a data center, an office or even a house in Eagle Mountain, you must first deed an appropriate amount of water rights to the city.
“If they can’t do that, we simply can’t allow it to develop,” Sandborn said, “because we’re not going to allow the water that is already there for our residents to be jeopardized by new development.”
This adds a considerable sum to the cost of building in Eagle Mountian. Water rights can go for anything from $4,000 to $10,000 for the right to an acre-foot of water, and one acre-foot will supply just slightly more water than is typically consumed by a single-residence house in a given year. If a developer can’t find water rights available on the open market, Eagle Mountain does have some under contract with the Central Utah Project that currently go for $11,000 per acre-foot.
For one house, that might not be so bad, but the cost can quickly accumulate. When Facebook opted to locate its data center in Eagle Mountain it proposed a facility that required over 100 acre-feet of water. The company opted to buy water rights from the city itself, Sandborn said, and while he doesn’t remember the exact price they agreed upon, the cost for the water rights alone totaled well over a million dollars.
These costs are currently offset by the low land values still available in Eagle Mountain. But Sandborn says the city accepts that it could one day cause growth to slow. “We want sustainable development,” he says. “We don’t want the residents of Eagle Mountain to subsidize a business coming in. Residents do not have to pay for Facebook to build their water system.”
How we can conserve water
Eagle Mountain’s interest in sustainable growth has also opened doors to innovative solutions, including a public-private partnership with Facebook that enabled the city to re-use the water from its data center to irrigate the city’s public parks.
But you don’t necessarily need to be Facebook to help the state conserve water, Olsen says. Businesses and residents can all look for ways to decrease their water use by installing low-flow faucets and toilets, replacing grass with plants that consume less water, or even hiring a certified WaterSense landscaper to audit an existing irrigation system and find places for improvement.
Jordan Valley Water has found that its most effective to plan for water efficiency—and water-efficient upgrades—from the very beginning of a development when possible. A lawn that is installed today doesn’t just use water today; it uses water for the next 50 years until somebody pays to replace it with something else. Industry and business owners can make this process easier by planning for adaptable water systems, Shilton says. As water-saving innovation becomes more important in the future, businesses with flexible systems and processes won’t need to spend as much on retrofitting existing facilities.
This is true on a utility-scale as well, Olsen says.
“In many cases, cities and states have gone down this road where they get to this point that they’re in emergency mode, and they end up spending tons of money to take quick measures that may not be super productive in that moment,” he says. “California paid $2 per square foot to do mass removal of lawns, for very little water savings.
“If we can get our landscaping dialed in right now, we are saving our future water users a lot of costs, because retrofitting a landscape or plumbing fixture is a much higher cost than getting it right the first time.”
Choosing to act now, Shilton says, will not only save money but also give the state more options in the long run, because sooner or later, water scarcity will force Utahns to make hard decisions about growth.
“We are going to reach a place where we choose what we decide to do, and it needs to be a deliberate choice,” Shilton says, because “we have more options if we make a deliberate choice. The longer you put it out, the fewer choices you have.”