Bill adapting how Utah measures water use, ‘so we can be competitive’ passes Utah Legislature

File photo taken at Quail Creek Reservoir, Hurricane, Utah, May 1, 2019 | Photo Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A bill that would adapt how Utah counts its per capita water use passed the Legislature as it gained the majority in the House Wednesday.

In this file photo, members of the Utah House work on the floor during a session at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 18, 2018 | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

Passing 68-3, Senate Bill 119, will have certain water agencies in counties with populations of over 175,000 adopt the “consumptive use standard” when calculating overall water use.

Specifically, the bill mandates that the Washington County, Weber Basin, Jordan Valley and Central Valley water districts each calculate water the same way.

Currently, Utah water agencies count water use in two ways – they count the amount of water diverted from a primary source to a particular service area and then divide it by the population within that zone to get the per capita water use.

Another method measures the amount of water that is delivered to the end customer. In Utah, the majority of the drinking-quality water delivered to the end user is metered. Using the amount of water delivered to the end users and dividing by population is another way per capita use is calculated.

Local water managers such as Zach Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, have said use of these methods do not compare well against the per capita use counts of neighboring states.

This is because other Western states use the consumptive use standard which produces smaller water use numbers than other methods do.

At Sand Hollow Reservoir, Hurricane, Utah, Jan. 25, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The consumptive use standard, as previously described by attorney Fred Finilinson during a hearing of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee, measures the water used by a household following delivery.

For example, a household may only use 10% of the water delivered while the remaining 90% returns downstream. That unused 90% is subtracted from the overall amount that is divided by the population.

Finilinson and water managers stated that not using the consumptive use standard for per capita use calculations is a large reason why Utah’s water use numbers of considered significantly higher when compared to other states. The difference in the numbers has generally led to Utah – Washington County in particular – among the top water-wasting regions of the West.

Sen. Michael McKell said he ran SB 119 so Utah would be on a more equal footing when comparing its water use to other states, especially at a time when they are each competing for continued access to the Colorado River in drought conditions.

Rep. Burton Jefferson, SB 119’s floor sponsor, reiterated the need for the adoption of the consumptive use standard whole speaking to the bill on the House floor Wednesday.

In this file photo, bathtub rings show how low water levels at the Colorado River-fed Lake Powell have declined, near Page, Arizona, June 8m 2022 | Associated Press file photo by Brittany Peterson, St. George News

“We’re competing with the rest of the Lower (Colorado) Basin states for water in the Colorado River,” Jefferson said. “This is the model they use and Utah is simply shifting to that model so we can speak in comparative terms and compare apples to apples. It’s important so we can be competitive when these water use decisions are made.”

Due to climate change and the ongoing “megadrought” that has gripped the West for the last two decades and increased in severity in recent years, flows on the Colorado River have decreased by 20% since 2000.

As the seven states that rely on the Colorado River (Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and California) consider the best ways to preserve their own access to the river while also trying to come to a consensus on how future reductions in water use should be applied, they also face the threat of federal intervention from the Bureau of Reclamation if they do not come to a mutual agreement soon.

Recently six of the Colorado River Basin states agreed on a reduced water plan. California, being the sole holdout, proposed its own plan. While SB 119 ultimately passed the Legislature, it did face opposition from conservation groups like the Utah Rivers Council.

Zack Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, previously told St. George News that the SB 119 puts a “gag order” on the ability of certain agencies to report water use that may contradict what any of the four agencies targeted by the bill may produce. He also said the bill was “hiding water” due to it not accounting for how much water in the state’s secondary (irrigation-quality) water systems may be lost in transport.

Frankel repeated those claims during a House committee hearing held Wednesday prior to the bill’s moving to the House floor. Responding to the objections, McKell said he felt like he was reading a different bill, and argued the legislation is transparent and doesn’t restrict the ability of water agencies to report water use.

“This idea this is a gag order is exactly the opposite,” he said. “It provides transparency as we negotiate with out neighbors downstream and our neighboring states.”

While implementation of SB 119 will require listed water agencies to adopt the consumptive use method, it will also allow the two other methods long-used in the state to continue to be applied as well for internal use.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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