Panelists navigate river of water conservation topics at Utah Tech-PBS ‘Conservation Conversation’

ST. GEORGE — A recent climate conversation at Utah Tech University focused heavily on water and its conservation.

Scott Taylor answers questions after the conversation concluded at Utah Tech University, St. George, Utah, March 28, 2024 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

PBS Utah’s Liz Adeola moderated the “Conservation Conversation” last Thursday in Dunford Auditorium in the Browning Resource Center, providing pre-submitted student questions and taming a sometimes chatty crowd.

“We got lots of questions from students here at Utah Tech, and we’re going to use those questions to navigate this conversation,” she said.

The panel of regional experts included Doug Bennett from the Washington County Water Conservancy, Karen Goodfellow from Conserve Southwest Utah and Scott Taylor from the St. George Water Department.

The student-submitted questions gave the panelists a narrative throughline, allowing them to provide context between answers.

Panelists discussed the following topics:

  • How tourism affects water use.
  • The need for better water conservation in places like car washes and housing.
  • Replacing grass with drought-resistant plants.
  • How much water golf courses use.
  • Ways to reduce water use.
  • The idea of charging more for using a lot of water to encourage saving.

The tone was informative yet conversational, with each panelist having been familiarized with the questions beforehand.

Goodfellow, the vice president and water team manager for Conserve Southwest Utah, has a degree in marine geology and is now transitioning from a career in teaching oceanography at Utah Tech to environmental activism.

She spoke on the first point raised about tourism, which is an economic necessity for St. George.

“Sand Hollow was actually the No. 1 state park visited in the state of Utah —  1.4 million visitors came to Sand Hollow,” she said. “Ten to 20% of our total water usage went up in a day when we get big events in town.”

Goodfellow’s underlying point is that infrastructural enhancements are needed, and visitors should shift their cultural attitudes toward water conservation.

Doug Bennett taking questions after the conversation concluded at Utah Tech, St. George, Utah, March 28, 2024 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

Taylor, St. George’s director of water services, said he brought a local perspective. With over 50 years of life experience in St. George, Taylor’s career has spanned from civil engineering for local projects to overseeing the city’s provision of drinking and irrigation water and wastewater treatment.

Taylor fielded a question with a more complex answer than initially thought: “Are we running out of water?”

Taylor disagreed and pointed to the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s 20-year plan to support the region’s growth as one reason water won’t run dry. The plan’s set of practices is expected to contribute 75% of the necessary water supply.

Bennett, a conservation manager at the Washington County Water Conservancy, started as an assistant professor at New Mexico State University and then led conservation programs in Albuquerque and at the Southern Nevada Water Authority. He now resides in Ivins.

He spoke about water-intensive options like Airbnbs, which have a larger water footprint due to landscaping. Drawing from his experiences in Las Vegas, he suggested that efficient land and water use, through higher-density accommodations and reduced landscaping, could mitigate these impacts.

Bennett emphasized that while car washes are plentiful, the individual decides when to wash their car. Most car wash operations, he explained, are highly efficient, utilizing water reuse technologies and adhering to standards that limit water usage to 35-40 gallons per vehicle—a figure that is bettered by conscientious home washing practices.

A crowd member countered that the subscription model, allowing for multiple washes per week, has been studied. Findings show that this causes more frequent car washing and, therefore, more polluted water. Bennett again dispelled the notion.

Taylor then included that the city of St. George has already taken steps to mandate a certain level of efficiency for the oversaturated market, requiring new car washes to meet a 35-gallon-per-vehicle standard.

The panelists agree that domestic water used on landscaping, which is egregious and wasteful, affects water usage the most.

Bennett said eight different agencies are monitoring the situation. He promoted alternatives to traditional lawns made of natural greenery, which consume four times as much water as an equivalent volume of plants.

He said that converting non-functional grass areas into water-smart landscapes is the most cost-effective water conservation measure within a 20-year plan, citing successful voluntary changes by landowners that have saved millions of gallons of water.

Goodfellow suggested that high-density housing ultimately could lead to lower water usage per dwelling unit.

While on the subject of wasteful grass, the panelists and some audience members found themselves locked in a discussion about the intricacies of water conservation at golf courses.

The county hosts 14 golf courses that collectively consume 12% of the county’s water resources, amounting to 177 million gallons annually — eight times the national average.

However, golf courses serve as a significant driver of tourism and hospitality in the region.

Maria O’Mara is the executive director of PBS Utah, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy, St. George News

Innovative conservation strategies have been implemented, including the removal of turf grass, optimization of watering schedules and the introduction of artificial turf in specific locations. These measures have reduced water usage, but the solution remains elusive.

“You’re never done with conservation,” Goodfellow said.

One creative solution discussed involved using GPS devices to track golfers’ movements across the course. This data allows course superintendents to identify less-trafficked areas where water usage can be minimized without affecting the golfing experience.

Goodfellow cited the rise of individualism as another factor in unsustainable water usage. She stressed that a return to the pioneers’ cooperative spirit could help St. George sustain.

This moved the conservation conversation to brass tacks: money.

Goodfellow said that water is a right but suggested that a tiered pricing system should target excessive water use, particularly by those who significantly surpass average consumption levels. These meters have already been introduced in newer homes.

Bennett agreed and pointed to the political and social challenges of extending such surcharges to residents in older homes or longstanding community members.

Both laid out the current plan of how those who use less water are subsidized by the higher costs imposed on excessive consumers.

Maria O’Mara, executive director of PBS Utah, said she felt the goals of the forum were squarely met.

“We did exactly what we hoped it would do, which is engage the community on multiple levels,” O’Mara said.

Though the questions were from students, the overall crowd was comprised of older generations. Still, the venue was packed.

“This was super well attended,” she said. “I also love the fact that we were taking questions from students, and they told us overwhelmingly that water is what they care about.”

PBS Utah is a statewide service, and O’Mara says they care deeply about Southern Utah and St. George. They hope to continue to have panels like this in the future.

“We’re a service to all of you,” she said. “We care a lot.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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