Cities or farms: Who gets the water?

Oct 18, 2021, 11:44 PM | Updated: Oct 21, 2021, 9:27 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah economist says the state, which is trying to recover from severe drought, has enough water to deal with a growing population, if we just make some changes — difficult changes that probably won’t be popular with farmers.

Associate Professor Gabriel Lozada’s idea is to reallocate some water now used for agriculture.

According to a 2015 report, Utah residents use about twelve percent of the state’s water supply – about a third of that for indoor use and two-thirds for outdoor irrigation.

Meanwhile, agriculture, which the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food says accounts for two percent of the state’s economy, uses about three-fourths of the water supply, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Lozada – using figures from the US Department of Agriculture – calculated that most of that water is used to grow hay.

Ryan Larsen, USU extension economist, says 27 percent of that hay is shipped overseas.

According to Lozada’s calculations, if Utah reallocated the water that’s used to grow hay for residential use, the state, which now has a population of 3.3 million, would, on paper, have enough water for 20 million people.

If all residents stopped watering their lawns and yards, there would be enough water for 60 million people.

University of Utah economist Gabriel Lozada.

He suggests the state could pay farmers not to grow hay.

“If you diverted a small percentage of Utah’s agricultural water to urban areas, Utah’s population could increase quite a bit,” said Lozada.

He said that, of course, infrastructure would need to be built, and water laws and regulations would need to be rewritten to make this happen.

Right now, Utah is moving ahead with the controversial proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, designed to water a growing Washington County and Bear River Development Project in the northern end of the state.

Farmer Clay Carter agreed the status quo isn’t sustainable, but says the answer is increased efficiency on the part of both cities and agriculture.

Carter looks at the problem both as a farmer — he grew up on a Box Elder County farm and returned to his roots a few years ago — and as an engineer.

At his day job, he runs a Logan automation company — Specialized Analysis Engineering.

Carter grew up irrigating crops with inefficient dirt canals and metal syphons.

A lot of water is lost as it soaks into the dirt in the canal, and a lot is lost because of overwatering.

Carter demonstrates water canal and syphon irrigation.

A farmer is busy and can’t turn off the syphons at just the right time. So, Carter built an automated “surge” system for his alfalfa fields.

He runs it from his smart phone.

Remote-controlled water valves flood different sections of a field, which has been precisely leveled. As each section is flooded, sediment seals the dirt. The next time a valve is opened, the water flows past that section and waters the next.

Carter operating his irrigation system.

He’s still testing the system, but, so far, he said he’s grown 50% more hay with 25% less water.

Like other farmers, his water allocation was cut back over the summer.

“There’s enough water in this state to accommodate all of the interests if we would quit wasting it,” he said.

Tony Richards, resource coordinator with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said farmers “are the original conservationists. They do not want to use more water than they have to,” but they may be reticent to upgrade irrigation equipment because of the expense, and because of their use-it-or-lose-it water rights.

Farmer Clay Carter with Tony Richards, resource coordinator with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

In theory, if a farmer uses less than his or her allotment, they could lose their water rights.

“You can’t bury your head in the sand,” he said. “Ag does need to get more efficient. We need to be able to give farmers an incentive, to allow them to make a change and protect their livelihood. I mean, that’s what we’re literally talking about. When we talk water, there are people’s livelihoods that depend on it.”

Farmers need more flexibility, he said, and that’s why the legislature approved a pilot water banking project. Farmers can temporarily transfer a portion of their allotments.

Carter said he returned to the farming life, on a part-time basis, because of a value that can’t be measured.

“Keeping roots in the ground, so to speak, is something that is a value,” he said. “Why would we want to give up a resource that is here if we can’t demonstrate that there is considerable reason to give it up?”

Zachary Frankel with the Utah Rivers Council, a nonprofit that works to protect river ecosystems, said instead of trying to reallocate agricultural water, Utah should look for ways to decrease outdoor residential use.

That, he said, would yield quicker results.

“Just because you see waste, that doesn’t mean it’s economically advantageous” to try to address it, he said.

A big part of the problem, he said, is the price of water. Utah’s rates are subsidized with property taxes, so water is cheap and the amount used per capita is the highest.

“You put economic rationality, together with an irrational pricing system, and you get bad outcomes,” said Lozada.

Lozada said the real threat to Utah’s water supply isn’t population growth, but global warming.

The state’s proposed water plan includes a 10% drop in supply and a 10% increase in a measure of how much water plants lose into the atmosphere over the next 50 years.

Frankel says he thinks that is too optimistic.

The Colorado River, which supplies some of Utah’s water, has dropped 20/5 in as many years from the 20th century average.

“Leaving the situation with water in Utah, the way it is right now, is not an option,” he said. “We can’t stop climate change.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Utah Drought 2021

The East Bench of Salt Lake City receives a dusting of snow the morning of May 9, 2022. (Jed Boal/K...
Jed Boal, KSL TV

Drought coordinator: Hold off on watering; consult the weekly lawn watering guide

The cool, wet spring Utah is having is exactly what the state needs in the midst of this historic drought. The wet weather won’t really make a dent in the drought, but it can help everyone save water, if we take advantage of it.
8 days ago
(KSL TV)...
Eliza Pace, KSL TV

Ogden mayor declares severe water shortage

Effective immediately, Mike Caldwell, Ogden City Mayor, has signed a declaration of severe water shortage. 
13 days ago
Weber State University has replaced grass and plants with xeriscaping at several areas of campus. (...
Mike Anderson, KSL TV

Weber State University saves 50 million gallons of water a year, more savings planned

Weber State University has cut water usage by about 30% thanks to an ambitious water conservation plan.
26 days ago
Chopper 5 shows just how much of the Great Salt Lake has evaporated. (KSL TV)...
Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News and Mike Anderson, KSL TV

Could Utah children help shape the destiny of the ailing Great Salt Lake?

To save the Great Salt Lake is to know its worth. To know its worth is to be educated about why it matters.
27 days ago
Satellite imagery of Sand Hallow taken June 2021. (Nearmap)...
Eliza Pace, KSL TV

Aerial imagery reveals the grim reality of ongoing drought in Utah

Aerial images provided by Nearmap, an aerial imagery company, show before and after photos of local reservoirs with receding shorelines: more evidence of the dire drought conditions that plague the state of Utah.
28 days ago
Sprinklers water a lawn in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 7, 2021. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issues his ...
Lauren Steinbrecher, KSL TV

Salt Lake City, County focus on water conservation as peak-demand season starts

Both Salt Lake City and County are focusing on water conservation as peak-demand season begins after a less-than-average winter snowpack and as drought conditions persist.
1 month ago

Sponsored Articles

Earth day 2022...

How Are You Celebrating Earth Day 2022? | 4 Simple Ways to Celebrate Earth Day and Protect the Environment

Earth Day is a great time to reflect on how we can be more environmentally conscious. Here are some tips for celebrating Earth Day.
Get Money Online...

More Ways to Get Money Online Right Now in Your Spare Time

Here are 4 easy ways that you can get more money online if you have some free time and want to make a little extra on the side.
Lighting trends 2022...

Lighting Trends 2022 | 5 Beautiful Home Lighting Trends You Can Expect to See this Year and Beyond

This is where you can see the latest lighting trends for 2022 straight from the Lightovation Show at the Dallas World Trade Center.
What Can't You Throw Away in the Trash...

What Can’t You Throw Away in the Trash? | 5 Things You Shouldn’t Throw in to Your Trash Can

What can't you throw away in the trash? Believe it or not, there are actually many items that shouldn't be thrown straight into the trash.
Make Money Online Easily...

4 Ways that You Can Make Money Online Easily in Just a Few Clicks

Here are 4 ways that you can make money online easily in no time at all! Some are as simple as just a few clicks away.
tips to winterize your home...
Bonneville Digital SLC

Tips to Winterize Your Home | The Top 5 Ways You Can Prepare for the Cold Utah Winter Ahead

Before the snow hits, here are the top 5 tips to winterize your home to prepare for the cold Utah winter this year.
Cities or farms: Who gets the water?