State awarded $20 million to study future water needs

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:17 PM

Michael McFall

OGDEN — Tage Flint, general manager of Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, knows all about the challenges the Top of Utah will face when it comes to water and trying to manage and protect it.

The population of the district’s service area, including Weber, Davis and Morgan counties and the Willard Bay area of Box Elder County — is expected to double between now and 2040, according to the Utah Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, Flint said.

“Even with some very aggressive conservation goals, we still are going to have to develop more water than we presently have,” he said.

The conservancy has a list of its own projects to see to that, but the federal government is stepping in to help with that effort as well.

The National Science Foundation awarded the state $20 million to explore how population growth, changing climate and land use affect the state’s water sustainability. The point is to assess the water situation in Utah so that everyone — from residents who water their lawns, to lawmakers to land and water agencies — make as informed a decision as possible, said Rita Teutonico, director of the Utah Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research Office.

The award, which went into effect July 1, provides $4 million per year for five years through Teutonico’s EPSCoR office and creates iUTAH, or “innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydro-Sustainability.”

Utah State University watershed sciences professor Todd Crowl heads iUTAH, which will steward the millions among University of Utah, Brigham Young University and the state and federal land and water management agencies that are collaborating with each other and USU on the project.

“Utah’s population is expected to at least double in the next two decades, with most of this growth occurring along the narrow Wasatch Range,” Crowl wrote in a news release.

Water demand will grow with the population, a demand that will need to be addressed, he added.

Utah’s impending water problems have been on watershed scientists’ radars for a while now, Teutonico said. But with the dry winter and spring and the declaration last week that Utah is in a drought, the issue is reaching a critical level and rising to a more public consciousness, she said.

Utah’s drought is part of the nation’s widest drought in decades, with more than half of the continental United States now in some stage of drought and most of the rest enduring abnormally dry conditions. Only in the 1930s and the 1950s has a drought covered more land than it does now, according to federal figures released Monday.

Because it takes so long to plan ahead and develop water projects, Flint said his office is always looking about 25 to 35 years ahead.

Teutonico knows how long-term the efforts to study and develop water projects can be. For the next five years, the goal for the state project is just to set up all of the infrastructure required to start monitoring and testing, plus collect some preliminary data, she said.

For instance, the plan is for three of Utah’s natural watersheds along the Wasatch Front to serve as “living labs,” with on-site observatories.

The plan also includes building a green-infrastructure research facility with controlled experimental gardens to test engineering innovations to improve Utah’s water infrastructure, runoff and water quality in an urban environment, as well as a centralized computing facility for data integration, storage and sharing.

iUTAH will oversee “Environmental Situation Rooms,” designed to explore, visualize and analyze data and model simulation from all focus areas. The situation rooms will be at the Logan USTAR campus at USU and the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City.

iUTAH will also inform residents about sustainable water practices and educate future water scientists and managers.

As for the conservancy district, Flint said they plan to recharge the aquafers with more water — essentially storing water underground — and looking at new programs to turn agricultural water into urban water as more cornfields become suburbs.

They are looking into surface water projects, such as possibly raising the Willard Bay Reservoir to hold more water.

The $20 million award is the largest EPSCoR award to date.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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