While facing a historic drought, Utah officials don’t have a handle on how much water slips through their fingers

While facing a historic drought, Utah officials don’t have a handle on how much water slips through their fingers

The following story was supported with funding from The Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder and was reported by Eric S. Peterson and McKhelyn Jones of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with City Weekly, The Herald Journal, The Spectrum, The Daily Herald and the Standard Examiner.

Bret Christensen heads a water company older than the state of Utah.

The Richmond Irrigation Co. was founded in 1889. Christensen’s father was president of the company before him, and his grandfather was the first to put gravity pressurized irrigation into Cache Valley decades before that.

During a recent interview, Christensen spoke casually while at the same time giving directions to employees at a worksite and hammering on a water pipe. He was only flustered when asked how long he had been in the business.

“Oh heck, I’m the president, and I’ve been on the board for … 18 years,” Christensen said. “Quite a while.”

Over more than 130 years of keeping the water flowing, the company—like many across the state and nation—went from watering fields and orchards to also providing secondary irrigation to water the lawns of the towns and cities that have, slowly at first but rapidly in recent years, worked at paving over all their farmland.

The problem with these old water systems is they were never metered, especially as many ditches and canals were dug before meters had been invented. Now, many secondary systems simply estimate how much water customers use.

The Richmond Irrigation Co., for example, estimated using 36,244 acre-feet (11.8 billion gallons) of water in 2020. By comparison, the South Jordan City Irrigation Co. estimated it used 5,850-acre feet (1.9 billion gallons) in Salt Lake County for the same year.

Christensen said Richmond’s estimates are based on the number of sprinklers deployed by each of their users. Other systems may make a quick calculation of the amount flowing through a canal and then just pencil that across from one year to the next.

But they’re all just estimates.

With Utah withering under a brutal and perhaps record-setting drought this summer, The Utah Investigative Journalism Project looked at how many water sources in the state’s six most populous counties use meters, gauges or other accurate measuring devices versus the use of simple estimates or calculations.

A review of 465 different water source reports from the Utah Division of Water Rights shows 1,924,467 acre-feet (627 billion gallons) tallied by meters in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Washington and Cache counties compared to 344,991 acre feet (112 billion gallons) that is unmetered. Overall, that means 85% of those counties’ water is metered versus 15% that is roughly estimated or calculated.

Salt Lake County came in second place for its efficiency, reporting 92% of sources as metered versus 8% nonmetered.

For critics, however, the math gets fuzzy when unmetered reports are taken at face value. Considering factors such as unlined canals and ditches, changes in summer temperatures, bad math and opaque industrial calculation, a big question mark looms over that unmetered 15%.

For Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, the economics of this water dilemma can be infuriating. He points out that, by volume, Utah’s secondary system of canals and ditches is the largest in the country. The state also puts 85% of its water into agriculture without investing in accurate metering or improvements to canals and ditches.

“It’s not like our farmers are these arrogant multimillionaires with toothpicks in their mouths saying ‘I’m going to waste all the water in my power,'” Frankel said. “I’m sure they wish their canals were lined with concrete or piped but they don’t have the capital for that. All the capital is in our cities, and cities are not willing to invest in farm improvement—they want their multibillion-dollar water projects and nothing else.”

Secondary Concerns

Of the six counties studied, Cache, at only 58%, had the least metered sources. The most efficient on the list was Davis County with 99% of its water from metered sources.

Richmond Irrigation accounted for nearly 40% of Cache County’s entire water use for 2020, and Christensen, for one, would love to be able to meter every one of his roughly 800 users—but it’s just too expensive. Depending on size and features, meter prices can range from $500 to $2,000 per single meter.

“It would cost a fortune,” Christensen said, adding that “we just barely spent $5.5 million on improvements. We couldn’t really afford to do the meters … without a grant or something.”

It’s a point echoed by Brandon Mellor, who oversees the state’s water reporting program and works with roughly 1,200 water systems in the state to make sure they submit their water use reports every year by March 31.

“Some of these smaller systems are [operated by] volunteers, and they do not have the funds to put in a measuring device,” Mellor said.

In Utah County, four of the highest reporters of non-metered water for 2020 are secondary-source irrigation companies that often rely on estimates.

The Pleasant Grove Irrigation Co., for example, estimated using 6,941 acre-feet in 2020 (2.3 billion gallons). Pleasant Grove staff engineer Britton Tveten says the city uses the data available for the estimates and two of their water sources are now being metered and more precise data will be used for the 2021 report.

“We do see the need to accurately account for the water entering our system and are working toward accomplishing this,” Tveten wrote in an email.

Mellor noted that while all water sources have to report their water use by some method, they are not necessarily required to be metered in Utah. Instead, the state engineer decides on a case-by-case basis if water sources—public, secondary or industrial—will be required to have meters.

Legislation passed in 2019 did, however, create a requirement that new secondary systems built as of April 2020 would have to develop metering.

While it is true that putting meters on every secondary source would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, that’s still much less money than the roughly $3 billion price tag associated with either the Bear River or Lake Powell pipelines. Both of these proposed projects have influential legislators as advocates, and they have been pushing them forward for years.

Frankel, of the nonprofit Rivers Council, worries that underpriced water in secondary systems encourages the kind of waste that only amplifies the calls for new expensive municipal water projects. He noted that his organization studied secondary use and found that flat rate, per-lot-size fees on secondary sources make the water incredibly cheap, costing users 10 to 25 cents per thousand gallons compared to the $2.50 per thousand gallons paid by metered users in larger cities like Salt Lake City.

“It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” Frankel said of the commodity’s cheap pricing.

Industry on Tap

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project’s review of water sources found that, indeed, some of the larger sources of unmetered water were secondary irrigation companies. But so, too, were industrial users.

Rio Tinto Kennecott, for one, estimated that it used 7,150 acre-feet (2.3 billion gallons) in 2020.

In an emailed statement, Kennecott spokesman Matthew Klar said, “We are committed to conserving water as a vital resource for the Utah community and continually look for ways to improve the efficiency of our water usage.” Klar also noted that some of the company’s unmetered water is diverted from the Jordan River, which is measured separately by the state.

Among the six counties examined by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, the single highest non-metered user was Ogden-based Compass Minerals. The company reported using 152,016 acre-feet (49.5 billion gallons) of unmetered water from the Great Salt Lake. The company pumps lake water into evaporative ponds and uses the sodium chloride it retrieves for rock salt, table salt and other uses. According to the company’s annual public report, its Ogden facility is the “largest solar salt production site in the Western Hemisphere.” And in 2020, the company’s salt sales made up 57% of its $1.3 billion in revenue.

A spokesperson for Compass Minerals did not comment for this story, but Mellor, with the state Division of Water Rights, explained that he has worked with the company to explore better reporting mechanisms.

“Once they open a dam after they let that water sit there, it just goes right back into the Great Salt Lake [and] it would be very hard to report how much water is being returned,” Mellor said.

Frankel believes all water use should be reported accurately, but he said the focus needs to be placed on secondary use since there’s nothing essential about watering lawns.

“At least a private company is putting people to work and helping support the economy,” Frankel said.

(State Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, with Sen. David Buxton, R-Roy. Photo courtesy Evan Cobb Daily Herald)

Watered Down

State Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, took on the challenge of metering in 2018 with a bill that would have phased in requirements for existing secondary systems to begin this more accurate method of measuring use.

While that legislation stalled out, a new version passed in 2019. That watered-down bill didn’t require meters on existing systems, but it did at least “stop the bleeding,” Anderegg said, by mandating metering of newly constructed secondary systems.

Frankel and his organization believe behind-the-scenes politics were at play in the dilution of Anderegg’s original legislation. On June 30, the Utah Rivers Council filed a complaint with the Utah Attorney General’s Office seeking an investigation of potential conflicts of interest between water lobbyists with family ties to the executive staff of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

Frankel said these lobbyists actively fought against meters for secondary systems, among other conservation efforts. In its complaint, the nonprofit said the provisions in the defeated legislation could have saved 1.5 million acre-feet (488.8 billion gallons) of water, roughly equivalent to five years of water use in the Salt Lake Valley.

Anderegg’s 2019 bill created a low-interest loan option for cities to purchase and install meters on their secondary water sources. And since then, five cities have entered into contracts or bonds with the state for loans ranging from $807,500 with the Mountain Green Secondary Water Co. to as high as $11.9 million with Riverton City. The 2021 Legislature also appropriated $2 million in annual grants available to cities for metering projects.

Shalaine DeBernardi with the Utah Division of Water Resources says the agency has long supported getting more meters on secondary connections. The regular guidelines for the loan program, she says, provide up to 85% of the project costs, with the city or local sponsor responsible for covering the remaining 15%.

“We believe that you cannot manage what you don’t measure,” DeBernardi says.

Still, Anderegg worries there won’t be much political will in the Legislature to revisit requiring meters on existing systems in the future.

It’s discouraging, the lawmaker said, because better education about water use has been shown to help residents voluntarily slow the flow. He noted that a grant obtained by Washington Terrace led the city to voluntarily reduce water use by 35%. Saratoga Springs got a grant to install meters as well and saw a 68% reduction in combined secondary and culinary uses.

“It isn’t necessarily true that we have to increase the fees for water users to compel conservation,” Anderegg said. He believes if secondary metering went in across the state, water use would drop by a third.

“We wouldn’t be overwatering, we would be wiser stewards of this scarce resource,” Anderegg said. “That’s the low hanging fruit, independent of major water projects like the Lake Powell pipeline or Bear River—that’s something we can do right now.”

Understanding how drips and drops add up to millions of gallons of water gives Utahns a grasp on planning for the future. It’s an idea that can also cut across political divisions.

It’s not just Republicans like Anderegg who see the benefits of better data. Michael Melendez with the Libertas Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank, says better data will be a boon to taxpayers.

“We are supportive of better metering because it would pave the way to actually using market forces to price water and allow people to feel the effects of their use,” Melendez says. “By focusing on user fees rather than subsidization, we hope that Utah can make better decisions about this precious resource.”

For the more environmentally conscious Frankel, understanding the “market” means understanding ourselves and the consequences of our behavior—a point being driven home in the midst of this blistering drought.

“One of the most insightful observations in this drought is the idea that we’ve caused this problem,” Frankel says. “We are going to determine our fate when we can take responsibility for our actions, instead of blaming Mother Nature on our plight. Mother Nature is not heating up the air temperature—we are. And Mother Nature is not encouraging us to waste water—our state leaders are.”

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