Summit County councilors eye drought measures, but stop short of ordering restrictions
Lawns are the key culprits in overuse, officials say
The Summit County Council on Wednesday directed staffers to pursue several strategies to deal with persistent and extreme drought conditions, though elected officials stopped short of recommending the tightest restrictions they could enact, which would entail adopting an emergency order that restricts water use.
The ability to restrict the use of water is limited in that the County Courthouse does not directly supply water to customers.
Officials from small and large water companies, the agriculture industry and others discussed the drought with the council, with a consensus opinion appearing to be that residential lawns are a key source of water overuse and that the county will work to restrict their installation going forward.
Councilor Chris Robinson, who owns ranching operations on thousands of acres of land, said the current drought is the worst in many people’s memories.
“I think it’s more of a wake-up call to a fundamental problem regardless of the drought, and that is that we are being profligate with our use of water resources,” Robinson said. “And I’m mainly referring to this pioneer ethic that we mainly inherited, which is the summer watering of sod. I think it’s the largest culprit.”
Robinson advocated for several methods to reduce the use of water, including “punitive” water rates to encourage less watering, smart meters on water sources and county ordinances to govern how much water-hungry landscaping can be installed in future developments.
“Unless there’s some kind of hard-and-fast rule, it still goes in in excess quantities,” he said.
Such regulations exist in the Snyderville Basin, but are mainly limited to larger commercial developments, according to a staff report prepared by Pat Putt, the county’s community development director.
Those regulations do not exist on the East Side, according to the report.
Putt called the effort to improve the ordinances a “moonshot” and said it would be a priority to usher them through the county’s planning commissions for approval.
Robinson indicated the timing for the ordinances could be advantageous politically, as the drought has in some ways provided “cover.”
Officials were reluctant to pursue county watering bans through an emergency order, with councilors and others talking of the challenge of enforcing such an order.
David Ure, Summit County’s representative on the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District board of trustees, advocated for the council to allow local water companies to regulate water use, as the smaller companies are closer to the conditions on the ground.
There are 70 or more water companies operating in Summit County, Putt said.
Scott Morrison, the general manager of the Mountain Regional Water District, which serves much of the Snyderville Basin, said the drought hadn’t yet affected the groundwater that serves Mountain Regional’s wells, but indicated conditions may continue to worsen.
“I’m concerned that darker days may be ahead,” he said.
He described low soil moisture that absorbed the runoff from the snowpack “like a sponge.”
According to Weber Basin, the runoff in the basin in an average year is around 324,000 acre-feet of water. This year, that number was 50,000 acre-feet, with only 7,000 acre-feet allocated to the district for use.
County officials discussed other potential solutions, including a group-xeriscaping program to offer discounts to homeowners who transition their yards from sod to less water-intensive plants, and to encourage the re-use of water through recycling systems.
The council requested monthly updates and indicated fast action was necessary.
“I think we’re in an emergency and we have to deal with it,” said County Council Chair Glenn Wright.
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