UTAH (ABC4) — With the population booming across Utah and Colorado and levels lowering in the Colorado River, Utah is facing a water crisis. One that’ll take years to remedy.
Almost a third of all water in Utah comes from the Colorado River. Around 60% of Utahns benefit from it, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources, who also said with the low water levels in lakes and reservoirs across the great basin, we’re at risk of losing our state’s most reliable water source.
The Colorado River is a sprawling natural resource states across the great basin rely on for water. But days are getting hotter, the river is getting drier and the demand only continues to grow.
“We are facing a crisis that shows no sign of getting any better,” said Leon Kolankiewicz, scientific director of NumbersUSA.
Kolankiewicz recently helped published a new study on Colorado’s rapidly growing population and its effect on the Colorado River.
“Increasing population, increasing water demands from an increasing number of consumers in Colorado and in every other state that comprises the Colorado basin is putting an ever greater demand on a resource that’s actually shrinking,” Kolankiewicz said.
The Colorado River is split between seven states comprising the upper basin: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming; and the lower basin: Arizona, California and Nevada.
Utah is allocated 23% of the water appropriated to the upper basin states, but 23% of a shrinking river may not be able to sustain our projected growth.
The Utah Division of Water Resources said Utah’s population will double by 2065, and years of drought have taken a toll on the state’s water supply, especially the Colorado River.
“With the low water levels in Lake Mead, Lake Powell, Great Salt Lake, other lakes and reservoirs there’s no question that there’s risk out there that the river will not produce what it’s produced historically,” said Gene Shawcroft, Colorado River Commissioner of Utah.
The Utah Rivers Council said water levels in the Colorado River have dropped 20% in the past 22 years due to climate change and are expected to keep lowering.
“Sometime in the next few decades perhaps earlier, the Colorado river could bottom out at a 40% drop in flows,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council.
This water is used throughout Utah, and it’s not just for watering your lawn. For many Utahns, it’s their drinking water.
“Our dependency on the Colorado River is huge. Most people don’t understand that,” Shawcroft said.
But watering our lawn is what experts said residents have a problem giving up. Despite Utah being a desert state, the Utah Rivers Council said our cities are obsessed with green ornamental grass, with 70% of city water usage going towards green lawns. And it adds up.
“Utah cities are America’s number one highest municipal water users,” Frankel said.
Experts said there are many ways to start conserving water, like reforming agriculture systems to use less water. Agriculture currently uses about 80-85% of the water in our state, according to the Utah Rivers Council.
Solutions also include reducing carbon emissions, building homes on smaller lots of land, reducing outdoor water use and more.
Washington County is the fastest-growing community in Utah. It is highly dependent on the Colorado River and is a recent example of aggressive water conservation for new communities.
“All grass is essentially banned, so they have to put in zeroscape. The city is still requiring really nice, beautiful landscaping, they just can’t have those really high-end water-use plants,” said Zachary Renstrom, the general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
Measures also include developing a large-scale regional water reuse and recycling program inside buildings, offering rebates to remove existing lawns and improving technology for water-optimizing agriculture.
But experts said aggressive conservation needs to be happening across the state.
As Utah continues to be an evolving and growing state, our systems, legislation and mindset about conserving water need to evolve with it.
“We need to be conscious about every time we interact with water and recognize that we can and have to do better in how we efficiently use our water,” Shawcroft said.
This year, legislators enacted more aggressive water conservation legislation.
Experts and officials said Utahns are doing better conserving water. This water year was slightly better than last year, but it will take years of good snowpack and conservation to get us out of the drought.