SALT LAKE CITY  — Water conservation measures have helped keep Utah's drought situation from getting worse, state officials told a legislative panel on Wednesday.

At a briefing before the Utah State Legislature's Interim Natural Resources Committee, the executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources noted that all of Utah remains in some level of drought conditions. Recent storms across the state have helped with soil moisture, but do not refill reservoirs.

Still, water conservation by Utahns has been remarkable. For example, reservoir demand is 15% less than what it was a year ago — a sign that Utahns have reduced how much water they use.

"The people of Utah have gotten the message that conservation works," Joel Ferry said.

Ferry said Salt Lake City's Public Utilities agency has recorded a 2.9 billion gallon savings since April from its customers. In the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, they have saved 5 billion gallons over last year. The Washington County Water Conservancy District has recorded 111 million gallons saved and Sandy City alone reported its residents have helped to save over 700 million gallons.

Zachary Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group, said it wasn't enough and called for state leaders to do more and listen to their critics to craft water conservation policy.

"The bottom line is, when you look at our water conservation savings, we’ve reduced water use about 10% this summer. Which is great," he said. "Ten percent is a good start. But we really need to lower our water use 30 to 50%. What’s problematic is state leaders are refusing to open themselves up to what the public has to say."

Frankel called for more tough policies to reduce water demand and use. He also questioned if all these water savings meant change for places like the Great Salt Lake, which continues to decline and will likely hit a new record low when the water year ends in October.

"Everyone cares about the Great Salt Lake, but what we’re not really seeing is whether these saved waters are actually going into the lake," he told FOX 13 News.

Ferry said in an interview that many of the policies and funding designed to save the Great Salt Lake had just gone into effect, including $40 million just to secure water for the lake itself.

"The lake would be in much worse shape if we weren’t taking these efforts," he said.

In the legislative briefing, Ferry noted that some parts of Utah are doing better than others. The Sevier River Basin had two reservoirs — Gunnison and Piute — completely empty.

"Sevier is kind of a microcosm of where we’re headed if this drought continues," Ferry said. "The Colorado River? Long-term drought."

Ferry told lawmakers they will likely be asked to fund ongoing conservation projects. For example, an agriculture optimization program to get farmers and ranchers (the state's top water users) to switch to water-saving technologies has already run out of money because it's so popular. There is also strong demand for turf buyback programs and other incentives to get people to conserve water.

Committee chair Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, appeared to acknowledge the task ahead of them.

"I think the state will react in the appropriate way and we’ll do it the Utah way and we will make the changes," he said. "Legislatively, we’ve got some big work ahead of us."

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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