Amy Roberts: What happens when Utah’s well runs dry?
The list is daunting: The Canyons Village, the base of Deer Valley’s Snow Park Lodge, Park City Mountain’s current parking area, a housing project near the Home Depot that will leave a few thousand people using one roundabout, and some 13,000 units near the Jordanelle Reservoir. This isn’t a complete list of planned development slated to begin soon; it’s just what immediately comes to mind. All of this development is on tap.
But what happens when the tap runs dry?
Unfortunately, many of these developments were granted some form of never-expiring approval decades ago. There’s not much that can be done to stop them. But mitigation by way of irrigation is an idea that might hold water.
When more buildings and bodies are mentioned, the concerns about traffic and general overcrowding quickly follow. The solutions offered tend to be more public transit, expanding roadways, and otherwise figuring out how to adapt to all the additional people. But the impact of all that planned development is far greater than a traffic jam, and it’s rarely spoken about — our water supply can’t sustain all this development.
Water is a finite resource, one we cannot manufacture or live without. Our filled-the-brim reservoirs are a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the amount of water it will take to build all those new structures and supply all the people residing and working in them. Every single one of those homes and businesses will have toilets, sinks, showers, lawns, laundry, and thirsty people. What is the plan to ensure there’s enough water to meet the demand? As far as I can tell, there isn’t one. For a long time, we’ve operated under the assumption, “If we build it, they will come.” Maybe someone should start asking, “But what will they drink?”
Last week Utah State University’s Research Landscape hosted an event focused on Utah’s waterscapes. Much of the emphasis was on Utah’s growing population and dwindling water supply. Michelle Baker, an associate dean and professor of biology at USU, said, “Our water supply and the demand for that water have a mismatch. Second to Nevada, Utah is the driest state in the nation and climate change is not something that we can deny.”
Climate change matters because more and more of our water will likely fall in the form of rain instead of snow. Most of Utah’s water storage capabilities rely on snowpack to be effective, meaning our current ability to store water only works if it’s cold enough.
According to Baker, water consumption in Utah is among the highest in the country. On average, every person in the state uses 160 to 170 gallons of water per day. It’s not just the fact that in much of Utah people are bathing six or more kids. A lot of our water is also used in agriculture. And given that Utah has the second-lowest water per gallon rate in the nation, there really isn’t a monetary incentive to ration the supply. There should be. No matter how much money someone has to burn, no one can drink cash.
The city and county (and state of Utah for that matter) need to consider implementing and enforcing new codes for all development. Land owners might have the right to build, but surely we have the right to mandate xeriscaping, synthetic laws, low-water usage appliances, and other water-saving measures be part of every new structure built.
We made the mistake decades ago of granting development rights to infinity and beyond. Developers may be able to cash in on the lack of past planning and formality, but it seems logical to now consider proactive measures that will help prevent future residents from being in hot water 40 years from now.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis.
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“In a town with a mining past, a drought present and an overly developed future, water rights are exceptionally complex, but the consequences of not thinking this through might be catastrophic,” writes Amy Roberts regarding a deal to divert water from a popular creek in Park City.