Utah is considered a desert climate. On average, Utah receives about thirteen inches of rain every year – only Nevada receives less. Our northern back country mountains get about sixty inches while parts of southern Utah only get about five inches a year. And yet Utahns consume lots of water – the most water usage per capita in the United States.
Combine low rainfall totals with the highest usage in the nation and it is no surprise many people ring the alarm bell of water shortages this time of year. Many alarmists often pick one point in time as if that moment represents the entire picture – like a warm winter being evidence of global warming or a cold one proving the theory all wrong or how some people measure air quality during the couple of weeks of inversions every winter.
In response to claimed water shortages, Utah officials typically impose regulations on consumers to slow the flow. Water district officials will enforce strict measures such as the times when you can water your lawn. But there is another way to regulate water usage – charge more for water.
Utah has some of the lowest priced water in the nation – not real smart for a desert state. Consumers care way more about the price of something than the rules surrounding its use. If water officials are truly concerned about shortages, raise the prices. Transportation officials worried about road congestion do not tell you when you can drive your car. They create toll lanes and raise prices during peak use hours. Water officials should follow suit.
But first off, we need to keep the water supply in perspective. Several years ago I visited Hoover Dam and took its public tour. I asked our guide how long water users downstream from the dam – such as Las Vegas, Arizona and Southern California – would last on the current water supply if not one more drop were added? His answer: Seven years. I was blown away. I expected him to say seven days, not seven years.
Water is measured by acre-feet. An acre-foot of water contains 325,851 gallons. Utah’s current water supply, as of July 1, is 20,404,146 acre-feet. That is a 14-digit number of gallons of water – just over six trillion gallons of Utah water. A lot of that water resides in Flaming Gorge and Lake Powell. Excluding those two sources, Utah’s current water supply is 4,195,167 acre-feet. That is still a 13-digit number – about 1.4 trillion gallons of water supply.
Utahns consume, on average, about 240 gallons of water per person per day – or 262 billion gallons a year based on our current entire population. In other words, Utahns consume about 19 percent of available water supply every year. Nineteen percent! That means that after Utahns consume their 262 billion gallons of water for the year, four times that amount still remains.
That figure does not sound like a water shortage.
The alarmists will tell us that we need to plan for the future – and, of course, we do. As Utah’s population grows, water consumption will increase. In 40 years, Utah’s population is expected to almost double, from three million people to just under six million people. So, double the people, double the usage – still leaving us 60 percent of our water supply.
Yes, droughts will continue to occur and, yes, the water supply could dwindle dramatically. But Utah’s population has gone from a pioneer wagon to three million people today. We have a water usage track record we can look to confidently.
I am a conservative and believe in conserving good things such as water. My message is not that of a water shortage skeptic. Water comes and goes on its own schedule according to its times and seasons. Our forefathers planned for water conservation so that we would have an abundance of it today. We need to do for our rising generations what our ancestors did for us.
But as a conservative who believes in market principles, I think Utahns will learn to conserve water better through the amount they pay rather than through the harping of government regulators. I like my lawn and I like it green and healthy. I am willing to pay to have it that way. Raise the price of water enough and I will have to reconsider how much green I like my lawn – or if I have a lawn at all.
Farmers pay less for water and that is okay by me, especially if their products stay in Utah. Low-income households pay less because they use less. I do not mind paying more if I use more. So maybe water officials could try a new approach to water conservation – quit nagging people and just raise the price.