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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

When it comes to secondary water, should Utah value its dollar savings or conservation?

Bloomington Park in St. George. These signs were placed by the county and city, so residents understand where the water comes from.
Lexi Peery
Bloomington Park in St. George. These signs were placed by the county and city, so residents understand where the water comes from.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has declared a statewide drought emergency calling for more water conservation. Some communities are continuing to use untreated, secondary water for outdoor landscaping and say it will help extend their water supplies.

Poking out of green grass and vegetation at St. George city parks are signs that read, “This facility is irrigated with secondary or reclaimed water from the Virgin River Basin.” Some of the biggest water users in the city, as ABC4 reported, rely on this kind of water.

“If we were using potable [or drinking] water on those facilities, we would be out of water,” said Karry Rathje, spokesperson for the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “We wouldn’t be able to meet the indoor needs of our community.”

The signs help people understand the water is untreated and runs through a different irrigation system that’s smaller than the one for drinking water, said city water services manager Scott Taylor. He said that may mean sprinklers are running during the day, outside of the city’s time of day watering ordinance.

Taylor said the quality of secondary water sources in the region is bad, and it would take a lot of time and effort to make it drinkable.

“Our approach is, hey, if we have a supply of poor quality water rather than treat it to drinking water quality, knowing that we're going to use it outside, let's just keep it outside,” he said.

Kelly Kopp, a turfgrass specialist at Utah State University, said untreated water can sometimes be seen as not as important to conserve. She was recently in St. George and saw one of the signs near “water puddles” after the sprinklers had run.

“As far as I'm concerned, water is water, and there is no justification for wasting any of it,” Kopp said. “There is that attitude of well, it's just secondary water, we haven't treated it, it's not as expensive. Well, yeah, that's true. But I think we will get to a point where we do capture that water and we do treat it because we need it to drink.”

For his part, Taylor said he sees secondary water as just as important to conserve as culinary water.

But water in Utah, especially secondary, isn’t economically valued, said Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. He’s long advocated for higher water rates, rather than Washington County pursuing projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline.

“Isn’t it better to save billions of dollars of future debt on Washington County residents by raising water rates on secondary users?” Frankel said.

This year the Utah legislature passed HB 242, which requires all secondary water connections to be metered by 2030. Those backing the bill say measuring how much is used could lead to a 30% savings.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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