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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.

Here’s how 2 Utah cities conserved more water — and what others can learn from them

A sprinkler waters a Utah lawn, Aug. 16, 2021.
Brian Albers
A sprinkler waters a Utah lawn, Aug. 16, 2021.

Everyone knows Utah needs to conserve more water.

Even with this year’s record snowpack, the long-term outlook for drought, climate change and population growth means that every drop has to count. And yet, Utah still has some of the highest per capita water use — and lowest water rates — in the nation.

But some communities are pushing residents to use less water — and finding success.

A new study from Brigham Young University highlights two very different Utah cities that have gotten people to conserve more in recent years. They did it by changing up the ways they charge for and communicate about water.

One town, Saratoga Springs in Utah County, was motivated by population growth. It’s one of the fastest growing parts of the state with nearly 50,000 residents.

The other, Blanding in San Juan County, is smaller — fewer than 3,500 residents — but has a finite water supply situation in rural southeastern Utah.

Rob Sowby teaches about the engineering of sustainable water infrastructure at BYU and co-led the research. He said the cities’ success stories show that water conservation shouldn’t be pigeonholed as either an urban or rural concern.

“We juxtapose these two very different cities that are struggling with water issues,” Sowby said, “but are still solving the problem in their own way.”

So how did these two cities do it?

Sowby said lots of Utah water districts have already started moving to tiered rates — meaning that the price for water goes up as someone uses more of it — and that’s a good first step.

But the approaches that Saratoga Springs and Blanding have taken, he said, are unique in Utah — giving users a limited allotment of water that they’re expected to make do with and adjusting prices based on the severity of local drought conditions.

Beyond the actual policies, Sowby pointed to another key reason for both of these towns’ successes: communication. They didn’t just change the rules. They helped residents understand why these changes were happening and why they were necessary for the community’s survival.

“It's not that it's strictly about cheap or expensive water,” Sowby said. “It's about communicating the value of water to customers … And that's what these two cities have done.”

In Saratoga Springs, it started with cracking down on the amount of water that had been going to water lawns and crops. A decade ago, irrigation users paid a flat fee to connect to the system, no matter how much water they took out. Sowby described it as an all-you-can-eat water buffet.

That’s how many Utah communities still approach handing out water for irrigation, Sowby said. But as Saratoga Springs grew, it decided it needed to save more of that water for use inside residents’ homes.

“They realized that if they kept growing that way and using water that way, they were not going to make it,” Sowby said. “They would run out of water too soon.”

So in 2014, the city separated the drinking water from the irrigation water in its system and started setting a monthly allowance — a bucket with a set number of gallons — for each irrigation customer based on the size of their property. The city then set up pricing to incentivize staying within the limits — someone who uses 150% of their water allowance pays roughly six times more per gallon than someone who only uses 75%.

On top of that, the city has the power to reduce the size of those irrigation buckets based on drought conditions, like it did last year when it cut allotments by 20%.

From a conservation standpoint, it worked. Saratoga Springs residents reduced their water use by 22%, 19% and 10% in July, August and September of 2022, respectively, compared to the previous year.

Many parts of Utah don’t even have meters on secondary water connections used for irrigation. That means there’s no way to know how many gallons are flowing that way, let alone enforce restrictions on their use. Utah recently passed legislation that will require water supplies to install meters to these irrigation connections, but the deadline isn’t until 2030.

For Blanding, the policy changes were less about sprinkler systems and more about the realities of living in an arid environment.

Terry Ekker, Blanding’s city engineer who helped lead the implementation of these policies, said the primary hydrological challenge the town faces is pretty straightforward.

“Just having enough water,” Ekker said. “On low snowpack years — especially when we have sequential years with low snowpack — that's when we struggle a little more.”

Blanding sits in a remote, dry corner of the state between Canyonlands National Park and the Navajo Nation. It gets nearly all of its water from snow that falls on the Abajo Mountains to its north and flows down into the town’s reservoirs. At the start of this year, those reservoirs had dwindled to less than half full.

The town already had a tiered water rate system in place. But since 2019, it has upped the ante.

Blanding banned outdoor watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. It also introduced seasonal changes to how much water people can use. Residents now get a water allotment for each part of the year — less water in the winter, a little more in the spring and fall and even more in the summer.

Lastly, it started adjusting residents’ water allowances based on how bad the drought is expected to get. At the start of each spring, the town examines the snowpack and the state of its reservoirs and then forecasts how ample or dire the water supply will be that year.

It communicates that news to residents using a color-coded system that goes from green (least concern about drought hurting the water supply) to red (most concern). If the town has a red year, that means no outdoor watering at all.

Last year, Blanding was in the orange zone — the level just below red. So people had to drastically cut back on the water they used outdoors from April to October. That meant drier, browner lawns, Ekker said, and fewer backyard gardens.

To help residents understand why their water bills were changing, the town launched a new explainer website and posted information on social media and in the local newspaper. And if a resident wasn’t following the rules, someone from public works paid them a visit to chat about why they needed to cut back.

It’s taken some getting used to, but Ekker hasn’t gotten too many complaints. Most folks, he said, realize the stakes of ensuring the future of water access in their arid region.

All the extra effort has paid off. The BYU study reported that Blanding used 14% less water in 2022 than it did the previous year. That’s an even bigger cut than Ekker anticipated.

His advice for other Utah towns looking for new ways to encourage conservation?

“I would tell them to think outside the box,” Ekker said.

That’s the big conversation that Sowby, the BYU researcher, hopes this study can start: How can the lessons these cities have learned help other Utah communities conserve water?

Every city’s water supply situation and conservation needs — as well as the discussions that need to happen to land at a solution — might look different. But given the dire conditions of the Great Salt Lake and the Colorado River, he said, it’s a conversation that more Utahns should be open to having.

“Utah has finite water resources, and people use them wantonly. We can all be better with it,” Sowby said. “This is our reality.”

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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