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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.

Washington County hopes its 20-year water plan will keep it blooming in the desert

Part of Washington County’s new 20-year water plan encourages replacing irrigated grass with drought-tolerant landscaping, like these cacti growing outside the city hall building in the town of Ivins, Utah. Oct. 24, 2023.
David Condos
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KUER
Part of Washington County’s new 20-year water plan encourages replacing irrigated grass with drought-tolerant landscaping, like these cacti growing outside the city hall building in the town of Ivins, Utah. Oct. 24, 2023.

The quest to find — and save — more water is nothing new for people living in the southwest Utah desert.

Back in the 1930s, St. George’s water conservation plan hinged on wooden, iron and cement pipes that replaced the open canal from the Pine Valley Mountains. The pipes reduced evaporation and seepage so much that the flow into town nearly doubled. Efforts like this allowed Washington County’s population to grow by 25% between 1930 and 1940.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the county’s growth in the years since. The population has quadrupled since 1990 — it’s now roughly 200,000 people — and projections from The University of Utah say the number could double again in the next three decades.

That kind of growth will take a lot of water in a place that doesn’t have much more to give. It’s one of the hottest, driest parts of the state, and unlike its Mojave Desert neighbor Las Vegas, it’s not currently set up to pull water from a large reservoir.

The county has essentially tapped out its current water sources, and the Washington County Water Conservancy District estimates it will need 46,615 acre-feet — around 15 billion gallons — of additional water per year to meet the area’s expanding needs into the early 2040s.

So, the big question is: Where will that water come from?

To answer that, the district recently released a new 20-year plan. It’s a $1.1 billion roadmap for how the county could conserve and reuse enough water to make it through the next two decades.

Stretching the region’s water supply may look different today than it did for southwest Utah pioneers in the 1930s, conservancy district general manager Zach Renstrom said, but the goal should be the same.

“They were treating every drop of water as precious,” Renstrom said. “When I hear somebody say, ‘Hey, you're trying to change things,’ I'm like, ‘No, I'm just going back to our heritage.’”

Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager Zach Renstrom stands next to a photo of southwest Utah pioneers digging a canal that hangs on the wall of the district’s St. George office, Oct. 23, 2023.
David Condos
/
KUER
Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager Zach Renstrom stands next to a photo of southwest Utah pioneers digging a canal that hangs on the wall of the district’s St. George office, Oct. 23, 2023.

Washington County’s conservation numbers have improved since 2005 when daily water use ballooned to 391 gallons per person. By 2015, water use dropped to 303 gallons per person per day, but Renstrom said there’s plenty of room to improve. The 20-year plan’s goal is an 18% reduction in water use among the county's existing households by 2042.

One thing that’s not in the plan for the next 20 years is the Lake Powell Pipeline. The idea of piping water 140 miles from Lake Powell to Washington County had been viewed as a potential savior for the area’s water troubles. The Utah Legislature approved it in 2006. But as lake levels dropped to record lows and the Colorado River was strained, that idea became less and less feasible.

The pipeline is still described as a critical future component beyond 2042, but the plan lays out a collection of initiatives that it says could get Washington County through the next two decades without tapping the Colorado River.

So if the water the county needs is not coming from Lake Powell, where is it coming from?

Mostly, residents’ bathrooms. Just over half of the additional water the area needs comes from recycling and reusing wastewater. That’s taking water that flows into the sewer from toilets and showers and then cleaning it enough to reuse it for irrigation.

If more farms, golf courses and homes can switch to using recycled water outdoors, it would save more culinary water for use indoors. St. George already does some wastewater recycling, but the plan is to ramp that up and build new reservoirs to store reclaimed water so it can be used year-round.

Smaller portions of the plan aim to draw additional water from new development projects (such as drilling and expanding wells), from optimizing existing groundwater sources (reassessing how much reliable water supply lies underground) and from the likely transition of farmland to residential neighborhoods (since homes generally use less water per acre than crop fields).

Other big chunks — the remaining quarter of the county’s total water needs — are expected to come from increasing conservation efforts. The plan says those gains will largely flow from the new rebate program that pays people to rip out grass and replace it with landscaping that doesn’t need sprinklers. Washington County is already replacing its grass faster than any other part of the state, with 1,524 landscape rebate applicants as of September.

In all, Renstrom said, the plan contains 100 separate tasks. Each one pulls a different lever that helps get the county to a sustainable level, he said, and many of them came from discussions he’s had with everyone from developers to city officials to environmental groups in recent years. He credits that process with helping get people on board with both the plan and the urgency behind it.

“I was like, ‘This is what's going on. We're in a bad position. The well is running dry and we have to do these aggressive measures and it's coming with a big price tag,’” Renstrom said. “But when you see the alternatives, everybody realized this is what we need to do.”

The town of Ivins just west of St. George offers a glimpse of what the region’s water-saving future might look like.

The landscaping outside of city hall — along with many medians, roadsides and yards around town — has gone grassless in favor of trees, bushes and drought-tolerant plants like cacti that don’t need a sprinkler.

“Grass is just a big user of water, especially in this desert environment,” said Chuck Gillette, Ivins public works director and city engineer. “The nice thing about eliminating grass is you're not asking people to change their habits. So when the grass is gone, it's gone, and that water is not going to get used.”

Ivins has already gotten a jump on some of the regulations proposed in the 20-year plan. In 2022, the town passed an ordinance that says grass can only cover 8% of any new residential lots and requires homes to be built with on-demand hot water recirculation systems. Gillette also credits city leaders, such as Mayor Chris Hart, who have championed conservation and emphasized it in their messages to residents for years.

The results bear that out. The 20-year plan calls for the county to reduce its per-residence water use for existing homes from an average of 0.772 acre-feet a year to 0.635 acre-feet a year by 2042. As of last year, Gillette said, Ivins’ water use rate had already dropped to 0.42 acre-feet per year.

“We're proving that it's possible to have a thriving and beautiful community and be at a lower water usage,” Gillette said.

Ivins public works director and city engineer Chuck Gillette stands among the non-irrigated desert plants that grow around the town’s city hall. Oct. 24, 2023.
David Condos
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KUER
Ivins public works director and city engineer Chuck Gillette stands among the non-irrigated desert plants that grow around the town’s city hall. Oct. 24, 2023.

Conserve Southwest Utah vice president and water program manager Ed Andrechak said the district’s 20-year plan hits the right notes with its emphasis on reclamation and conservation. He’s glad to see the Lake Powell Pipeline out of the mix for now, too. But he’d also like to see more done to capture and reuse water from storm sewers, for example. And he thinks cities should make the residents who use the most water pay higher rates.

“We really have to mash on the accelerator in terms of increasing pricing,” Andrechak said. “It's politically probably difficult and people might get voted out of office. But I think people need to be courageous and do the right thing.”

Tiered pricing where customers pay a steeper per-gallon price as they use more water already exists in Washington County. But for those using the most water, he said, rates should be even higher to get their attention.

If Washington County can decouple its water usage from its population — meaning that total water use levels off even as the number of residents continues to rise — Andrechak said, that could go a long way toward making growth possible.

Ultimately, he said, a lot of the success of the plan will depend on how much residents can change the way they view their own water use and build a culture of conservation. A future where the big green grassy lawn that may have been the envy of the neighborhood in 2020 becomes the scourge by 2030.

“We want people to say, ‘Look at those people with that audacious large lawn.’ That's a cultural norm. That's a shift in thinking. I think we can get there by 2030, maybe sooner,” Andrechak said.

In the near term, the municipal governments in the district still need to sign on to implement all the parts of the plan. The conservancy district board has approved it, but if city councils don’t agree to put it into practice, that could derail it — or at least change its savings math.

The plan’s high price tag also means the cost of new homes’ water connections will go up and residents’ water rates will likely have to be raised over the years, too. But in the end, Renstrom expects the people of southwest Utah to be able to find common ground on the plan, he said, because they realize that without water, there can be no community.

“It's not a Democrat or Republican thing. It's not an environmentalist thing versus the homebuilders,” Renstrom said. “Our community said, ‘You know what? This is what we need to do.’”

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