Culinary water suppliers have contingency plans for drought
As this summer has progressed, it has become apparent that another winter like last could become a real problem for all water supplies in the area.
Despite recent rains in some areas of eastern Utah, those do little to ease the fact that most of water used in the area comes from snow that falls in the winter, melts and then is stored in reservoirs for later use.
The vast majority of that water is used for agriculture. In fact in the case of Scofield Reservoir, the main surface water supply for central and western Carbon county, most of the rights to water behind the dam belongs to agricultural interests.
"Irrigators own 85 percent of the water that is in the reservoir," said Jeff Richens, the Director of the Price River Water Improvement District. The district supplies water to the non-incorporated areas of the county and to Wellington City. PRWID also works with Price and Helper on water supplies during the summer when demand in those towns is high. "We own a little more than 3,300 shares of water."
Traditionally, in all areas of the west, municipal water systems own more shares of water (a share is one acre foot of water) that they need to use each year. In good years they lease out some of those shares to other users. In bad water years those leased out shares decrease or even are non-existent. PRWID does that kind of leasing.
"Two years ago we leased out 1,800 shares of water to other people," said Richens. "This year we leased out only about 1,200 shares."
A low moisture winter this coming year could mean many fewer shares leased out or possibly none at all.
That declining lease rate is a sign of the times and a function of the weather. Water is delivered to customers from the reservoir based on how much is available. If the situation warrants itself next summer, deliveries of water could be cut.
As of last week, Scofield Reservoir held about 20,100 acre feet of water. That is less than a third of capacity, and things are not improving as water continues to flow to users who are trying to finish up their growing season into the harvest. The wetter and cooler weather, due to the annual monsoon that takes place this time of year, has helped slightly, but levels at the reservoir continue to drop daily. And rain that falls in the mountains above the reservoir mostly is sinking into ground that is excessively dry. What does run off only has a small effect on the level of the reservoir.
Cut deliveries are based on shares (actually a percentage of a share when water output is lowered). For instance if there is a poor water intensive winter and the reservoir does not recover to where it needs to be next spring, the delivery to a shareholder of a share of water could only be 50 percent. That means if someone owns one share, they will only get half of what they normally get. That is true for all users, including culinary water districts.
Richens said that is one of the reasons the district has an over abundance of shares to serve its customers. They have enough to take on a fairly large reduction in the water worth of shares.
Water used by culinary customers obviously varies throughout the year. In the winter there is almost zero percent use of water outside by PRWID's patrons. Averaging it out though, each person who utilizes water within the district uses 75 gallons per day. That average is from use inside a home or business and outside as well.
"The use of water in the district jumps 300 percent from January to July," he said.
Over the years many water districts have set parameters and plans for what they would do should a water shortage occur. At the present time PRWID is not facing that, but it could happen without more water on the ground this winter. Districts across the nation have often set "trigger" levels at which certain kinds of actions take place, including mandatory restrictions on water use. For instance if there is only 80 percent of the water that is normally available there for use, certain restrictions or cutbacks to customers might take place. Other changes may come at a 65 percent level or a 40 percent level. Many districts have done this because water is a very politically charged issue. Often without set guidelines some water officials have been accused of favoring one water customer over another.
PRWID has not exactly set "triggers" but does adhere to the fact that if water share deliveries are curtailed, some changes to use would have to be made. Outside watering by culinary customers could be restricted although as most water managers know, restricted times or days for customers often results in customers actually using more water because they utilize water through the entire time they can legally water lawns and gardens.
Studies and procedures (such as one called the Municipal Drought Management Plan done in Colorado in 2010) show that one of the best ways to curtail water use during a drought event is to make the watering cutback voluntary, but not completely penalty free.
"The state of Utah requires that any water system with over 500 connections must have a water conservation plan in place," said Richens. "They have a rate structure that we use that places a premium on high water use. Right now any business or residence that uses over 100,000 gallons a month, pays a rate of $3 per thousand over that."
That can become very expensive and cost does tend to control use when people reach that level. Demand strategies can include voluntary cutbacks, incentive based reductions (the state plan described above) or mandatory curtailment.
In some areas water districts have water augmentation plans. They have the capacity to tap other reservoirs, ground water and other sources. PRWID has little wiggle room when it comes to that. Their only direct water supply is Scofield Reservoir.
"The augmentation sources we have is that Price and Helper have their own wells for their water supply and we are interconnected," said Richens. "However in the summer we often help them with their increased demand. They help us at times to like the last few months while we were doing construction work at our water treatment plant in Price Canyon."
The state of Utah continues to spend a great deal of money on public education when it comes to water use. Watch any Utah televisions station and one will see the water reduction ads, many of which are very clever. But the message is the same; don't over water or use water unnecessarily. These kinds of ads even played after the winter of 2011 when all the reservoirs were full and snow remained in some places in the mountains all summer. The idea is that because people in the area live in the desert, water conservation should be important all the time. Not just in the years when supplies are short. The intention is to develop long term conservation habits.
The what-ifs are many. If this winters precipitation is poor, could it mean disaster for agriculture and industry. Could it mean people would have to let their lawns die and flowers shrivel up? And if it is really bad, will there be enough water to even wash and drink?
"The district does have the power of eminent domain over water if we have to have it," says Richens. But then he added that it would require a drastic drought emergency for that to happen.
Conservation by users even at this late date can help. The situation even for late summer is now marginal. What happens during this fall and the coming winter could mean a lot of differences about how things will go water wise, in the summer of 2014.