Homes under construction in St. George are pictured on Thursday, April 8, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

New construction is key to saving water, including the Colorado River

Zach Renstrom has been called a lot of things, and some of them are expletives not suitable for print.

Renstrom didn’t get sideways of people when he was a Washington County commissioner, but when he accepted the position as general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. His predecessor, the blunt-speaking, formidable and towering Ron Thompson, promised him it would be an easy job. He was probably winking when he said it, or at least smiling inside.

He’d been in the job nearly 40 years and told Renstrom that by the time he retired, the Lake Powell Pipeline would be finished.

“He told me, ‘All you have to do for the last part of your 20-year career is just go and flip the switch, turn those pumps on every once in awhile and then flip the switch off. And it’ll be easy.’ I was like, ‘Hey, this sounds like a great gig and I don’t have to run for reelection.’ Anyway, as everybody really knows, that wasn’t reality,” Renstrom said. “And so I took the job and it just blew up. We had to figure out a change in plans and we had to change very quickly.”

The highly controversial pipeline project has been years on the table and would siphon water from Lake Powell, part of the Colorado River Basin system and the second-largest reservoir in the country. It would tap an unused allocation of Utah Colorado River rights from the Green River that feeds into the Colorado River for placement in a 140-mile pipeline to serve the rapidly growing Washington County.

But consider this: From 1970 to 2020, Washington County experienced a population surge of 1,210%. By 2060, it is projected to grow as much as 200%.

Renstrom said he could see a grim new reality and that if the area didn’t learn to conserve water, and didn’t pursue other water resources such as storage and reuse, an entire way of life was at stake. A transplant to the area like so many others, he knew the wave was coming.

“You can either do two things with that wave — you can either you can get on that wave and ride it like a surfer and have the time of your life experience with great things or you can get humbled by the wave, get smashed into the ground and ruined,” he said. “We’re on the verge of change here on the Colorado River, ready to change Washington County. And I feel like at least in Washington County, we have caught this wave.”

The metaphorical hammer

Renstrom, who spoke to reporters at an introductory brainstorming session for the Colorado River Collaborative in Moab, addressed the challenges of invoking change on how water is used, how much is used and where it is used in Washington County.

He candidly said the Lake Powell Pipeline would likely not be built during his career — given regulatory pressures, Colorado Basin states’ opposition and the reality that to build anything related to a reservoir that is just over a third shy of full capacity means climate is working against us. The district does anticipate the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline, which remains in long-term planning.

So water districts are embracing change in aggressive ways, but they are trying not be onerous. There are plenty of rebates, incentives and landscaping help available on their respective websites. No one in an existing home has any obligation to participate, but they are not eligible for those financial benefits unless they are in a city that has adopted the water wise landscaping rules.

Washington County Water Conservancy District adopted the most stringent water efficiency landscaping rules in the state of Utah, but needed cities and developers to get on board with new construction.

Renstrom went to the homebuilders first and asked them how many new units they wanted to build. Was it 2,000 or 3,000, something like that? They huddled together and came back to tell him they wanted to build 5,000 new homes.

Renstrom said he bluntly told them there would not be any water to support that, unless there were conditions set in motion.

“In fact, when I went to the homebuilders, I told them that I was going to use that hammer. I said there’s no way I will let a home be built in Washington County. That does that. I can’t guarantee that home has water forever.”

Washington County’s sole source of water is from the Virgin River watershed. The river is a tributary of the Colorado River that is fickle. The “desert” stream, as Renstrom described it, has been the lowest and the highest during his brief time at the district.

“We actually ran out of water in the 1980s and there was a building moratorium.”

Tense moments and the water savings result

Although the homebuilders initially bristled at the change, the hammer of no new water left its mark. The homebuilders, on the hook with Renstrom, went to the cities, where there was more resistance and the attitude that government shouldn’t control personal choice.

“I will say the homebuilders 100% set it up. They went around and helped me get these ordinances passed” by the cities. “It took awhile and there was a lot of arm twisting that went on back and forth.”

He even ran into resistance in his own circles, with one woman telling him there was not a chance on this earth she’d tear out her lawn to allow a Californian to move in. But it was overcome.

Washington County is the first county in Utah to prohibit nonfunctional lawn in all commercial, institutional and industrial developments. With these standards in place, it has decreased its per capita water use by more than 30% since 2000 and has invested more than $75 million in water conservation efforts. Last year, it spent $25 million buying up water rights for additional water supplies.

The district is also leading the state in the grass replacement program, removing 34% of the grass statewide in 2023 with only 7% of the state’s population.

The region also has the burden or benefit of being a tourism magnet and those people need water too, Renstrom added. The county gets 10 million visitors a year, which on a per capita basis is more than Las Vegas.

Another hammer and this time, it is money

It’s not just Washington County faced with a water scarcity problem. Water districts father north that are part the Upper Basin Colorado system are using water-efficient landscape requirements as a tool for change.

Utah gets just shy of 30% of its water from the Colorado River due to complicated and highly expensive transbasin diversions, funneling the water from eastern Utah to the Wasatch Front via the Central Utah Project or the Provo River Project. About two-thirds of the drinking water in Salt Lake County comes from the Colorado River.

So chances are, if you turn on the tap, you are drinking some of that river water, or if you are irrigating farmland in the Uintah Basin or Green River region, the Colorado River is your source.

Variations of grasses and their water usage are displayed at the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District’s Conservation Garden Park in West Jordan on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District has 12 member cities on board with its water efficiency standards in terms of landscaping requirements on new construction designed to save the finite resource. There is one outlier they are still working to bring on board.

“Early adopters recognized that it was the right thing to do. It still made them uncomfortable. And it made us uncomfortable because we don’t like making our our customers uncomfortable,” said Alan Packard, general manager of the district. “But we felt there was an overriding need to push past that and implement what was smart for our service area.”

Their ordinance says on new construction, the only turf allowed has to be functional.

“If we want to accommodate growth in Utah and a lot of that growth is our own children and grandchildren, we need to use our existing limited supplies — and they are limited — more effectively, more responsibly,” Packard said.

How did Jordan Valley get its member cities on board? The power of the purse — with a higher cost for the water.

“We just explained to our member agencies that with the new supplies that we’ve developed, it’s imperative that those new supplies are used as efficiently as possible. And if if you don’t want to use those new supplies efficiently, then you’re going to have to pay a premium to use them. That’s what it came down to.”

He added: “Here’s the consequences if you don’t want to get on board and once you exceed that ceiling in your current water purchase agreement, then the next water you buy will be a lot more expensive. It was about double the cost.”

Cutting off the tap

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District took a different approach.

It delivers annually approximately 230,000 acre-feet of treated wholesale municipal water, wholesale and retail agricultural irrigation water, wholesale and retail secondary irrigation water, treated and untreated industrial water, and replacement water. Over 700,000 residents within Davis, Weber, Morgan, Summit and Box Elder counties receive water from the district.

Jon Parry, the district’s assistant general manager, said the district has about a 55% engagement rate with the communities it serves in terms of water efficiency standards. They obviously want more engagement, and went about it with a simple policy.

“When it relates to contracting of water, we will not sell additional water to our wholesale entities if they have not adopted water efficiency standards within their respective communities that support the regional goals of the state and our goals.”

For new residential growth, say on a 2-acre housing lot that is part of a community that hasn’t adopted the water efficiency standards, the limit is .38 acre-feet of water.

“That is not going to be enough to sustain that property,” he said.

The Central Utah Water Conservancy District delivers 400,000 acre-feet of water per year to its users that include residents and businesses in Salt Lake, Utah, Wasatch, Duchesne and then portions of Summit County.

Rick Maloy, strategic initiatives manager, said, like other districts, they offer rebate incentives for water savings. The biggest impact, however, is with new construction.

“When we first started these programs, you know, there were homes that had been built within the last six months and the sod hadn’t even taken root and they’re paying to rip it out. And we just thought that we’re just going to always chase our tail if we don’t stop this from going in in the first place.”

With all of these districts, a key component of change has been the residents themselves, lobbying city council members to adopt the ordinances so they can get rebates and change their landscaping. It is a true tale of the public changing political will.

Like Washington County, Central Utah’s district put the skids on new water availability for cities that do not participate.

“We had a small amount of water to allocate and we basically said, you know, we had more requests for water than we had water available. And so we just developed a process that said, ‘Okay, if you meet these requirements, then you’re eligible,’” Maloy said.

“If they didn’t have an ordinance adopted, then they didn’t get any water from Central Utah,” he said.

The outliers are some of the fastest growing cities in Utah County that are resistant.

“Utah County is kind of lagging behind and some of our bigger or higher growth cities haven’t adopted. They’ve been really apprehensive to adopt.”

That is fine, for now, as long as they stay within their water budget. But when they need more, that will be the rub, he stressed.

It is all about savings.

“We’ve had the luxury in past decades of not worrying very much about the scarcity of water. But we no longer had that luxury. Our water resources are limited,” Packard said.

He said he has a message for all water users out there, those who depend on the Colorado River and those that depend on reservoirs that store our snowpack.

“I’d love them to feel like we can all do this together, if we work together. And don’t wait for someone else. Changing habits with water has to start with yourself,” he said. “Maybe that’s the message that people can relate to. Utahns like to be self-sufficient and maybe we need to have a message of let’s be self-sufficient within nature’s budget. We’ve been over drafting what nature has given us. So let’s scale back and live within our budget.”

Deseret News Reporter
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues. In 2019 she received a silver medal in the prestigious Kavli competition by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Amy’s family lives in Weber County with their horses, chickens, Irish Wolfhounds and Jack the cat.

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