Water conservation is about to take off in Utah following a funding release from the governor’s office. In a move emphasizing innovation around getting more use from state water supplies, Gov. Spencer Cox announced an estimated $100 million for developing and integrating new high-efficiency technologies on Utah farms. Cox describes the decision as necessary to rein in the state’s agricultural water usage per Utah’s current and future water needs.
The funding comes in the form of a dozen different water conservation bills, efforts that prioritize efficiency in the short term by eliminating waste.
One includes a project in Washington County that will remove roughly 100,000 square feet of grass deemed non-functional, a move that will save the state an estimated 4 million gallons of water each year.
“We’ve got dozens of projects underway that have been proposed and will move forward, so that’s going to make a huge difference across the state,” said Cox. “We’ll continue to work with our water districts. Right now, it really is that the short-term answers are all about conservation.”
The funding will be welcomed by farmers statewide who have already been making changes due to adjusted expectations for irrigation-based water reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead. This year’s growing season has seen significant adjustments from independent farmers in what they plant and how they do it.
“We’ve changed the crops that we grow, and we’ve also changed the way that we water our crops,” said Kenny McFarland, a lifetime farmer in Syracuse. After a few years of less-than-impressive harvests, McFarland decided to shake up his process for watering the hundreds of acres of onions by implementing a drip irrigation system.
Though initial costs were somewhat difficult to swallow, McFarland says the results were significant. “A general number that I’ve come up with is about half of the water,” he says, suggesting that the farm is unlikely to depart from using this technology for the foreseeable future.
Still, he argues that the state needs to turn its attention to outfitting homeowners with comparable high-efficiency water systems, just as he and other farmers had to do. “I’m young enough that I’m concerned for the next 35 years. … It is really up to state and local governments and also water providers to make sure that in 20, 30, 100 years from now, we are sustainable as a community,” he said.
The state’s conservation funding will be allocated to a wide range of concentrated, research-based approaches where money is most valuable. One such grant will incentivize Utah’s home and business owners to replace their turf with drought-resistant plants like lavender or sagebrush. Another $5.25 million will go to various water-saving devices, an effort that comes in collaboration with water-saving districts and local municipalities.
Additional projects include funding for programs like Utah Water Savers, which offers cash incentives for residents who replace their toilets with WaterSense-certified models. The program will also receive funding to promote high-efficiency landscaping.
The latest funding release follows an earlier grant of $250 million to ramp up secondary meter installations throughout the state, a decision that has reduced water usage by at least 20% so far. Secondary water is water that has not been approved for safe drinking by the EPA. While it might not be the wisest substance to drink on a hot afternoon, secondary water is used as irrigation fodder, which doesn’t happen on most farms without a meter.
“We can’t expect people to conserve if they don’t know how much they’re using,” said Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. “Installation of secondary meters can provide both the water provider and the water user with accurate water information so they can make informed waterwise decisions.”