Water Waste in Utah
On March 8, Humanists of Utah hosted speaker Zach Frankel, founding director of the Utah Rivers Council. Frankel had some interesting and surprising information to share about the extent of water waste in Utah and the politics behind it. He is in a unique position to disseminate such information, due to his involvement with the Utah Rivers Council. What follows is a summary of the talk he gave.
Frankel first used a whiteboard to draw two pie graphs to illustrate how water is used in Utah. It turns out that 80% of the water used in Utah is for agriculture, with the remaining 20% for municipality and industrial use. After emphasizing that he is pro agriculture, he pointed out that water is used very inefficiently for agriculture, with around 8 gallons being diverted (i.e., wasted) for every 1 gallon that waters crops. He went on to say that, of the 20% of water used by municipality and industry in Utah, 75% is used outdoors, mostly for watering grass in the summertime. According to Frankel, the average amount of water used each day in Utah comes out to 305 gallons/person, which makes it the #1 state in the nation for highest per capita water usage.
Despite being among the driest states in the nation, Utah has the cheapest water rates of all the states, which accounts for the figures in the preceding paragraph, Frankel suggests. He went on to suggest that these incredibly cheap water rates are due to the fact that Utah uses property taxes to subsidize its water rates, which encourages water waste and requires that property owners who waste relatively little water help pay for the water that others waste extensively. He pointed out the irony of that setup in such a politically conservative state as Utah and of the fact that conservative members of the Utah legislature are in favor of maintaining the property tax subsidies, arguing that those subsidies and the low water rates they create do not lead to increased water usage. Along those lines, an article out from KUER on March 7th, titled “Water, Water Everywhere, but not a Drop to Drink,” described a Utah House attempt to earmark state General Fund money for a water project to divert the Colorado River to Washington County, in order to compensate for the incredible amount of water being used there.
The Utah Department of Natural Resources predicted that Utah will run out of water for municipal and industrial use by around 2017, or by around 2025 with a conservation rate of 25% total over a 50-year period of time (beginning in 2000), which amounts to a conservation rate of 0.5% per year. Frankel says that Utah actually will not be running out of water anytime soon, but highlighted the fact that significant damage to the environment could be incurred in an attempt to divert water from existing natural resources, such as the Bear River, to fuel continued high rates of water consumption. In order to get an idea of the disproportionately large amount of municipal and industrial water use in Washington County, he said that it uses more water and pays significantly less to do so than such large cities as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Seattle. In fact, St. George residents will use about 28,000 gallons of water per day in July, at a rate of just $1.11/gallon, which is much cheaper than that of the aforementioned cities and most others. When efforts were made to encourage water conservation in St. George and to stop a water project to divert water from Lake Powell to the city, a misinformation campaign was waged to convince residents that all outdoor plants would be prohibited and destroyed by the 90% conservation rate that would be necessary if the diversion failed to occur.
Frankel closed his talk by mentioning the environmental impacts of a few types of water projects and how to best conserve water at the individual level. First, a planned development in West Jordan would be fueled by a diversion from the Bear River, which would put the Salt Lake wetlands and all the wildlife they contain in danger. Building new dams, like the one proposed for the Green River, and other massive water projects are seen by politicians as more glorious than less expensive and less environmentally damaging endeavors, such as lining existing highly inefficient canals throughout croplands with concrete to greatly reduce water diversion. He said that the best way for citizens and industry to conserve water is to reduce outdoor water use, such as by only watering lawns before dawn and/or after dusk and by using a water schedule so as to not overwater and to only water when necessary (e.g., summertime). Finally, Frankel recommended everyone read the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for more information about water use in the desert west.
This month we are sharing a look at people who inspire us.
- The person who still inspires me is a University of Utah philosophy professor I had many years ago and who died several years ago. He was Sterling McMurrin, who apparently had a photographic memory or something close to it since he would lecture without a note. He was very knowledgeable and invariably interesting and civil. He received every honor the U could bestow, hosted a TV talk show, served as U.S. Secretary of Education, and even lectured at a Humanists of Utah meeting once.
- Flo Wineriter is my hero. I want to be just like him when (if?) I grow up.
- I have always admired Martin Luther King. His devotion to the Civil Rights movement was an inspiration to many of the Civil Rights leaders, then and afterward, moves me. He didn’t single-handedly set the wheels in motion, others started before him, but he galvanized the movement and spurred many others on. Like many great people through out history, he had flaws, but this does not diminish his accomplishments nor the accomplishments of those who helped him and followed after him. Taylor Branch’s trilogy (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge) about the Civil Rights era concentrating on the King years is a great way to gain knowledge of this man and his struggles for the rights of African Americans and, ultimately, of us all.
- A person who inspires me is Hillary Clinton. She has to play her role in the midst of horrible antagonism, disrespect, and dismissal. Yet she stands unmoved by all that, showing up sure of herself, smart, competent, advocating loudly and consistently for the rights of women and children across the globe. She stands strong in a world dominated by men, many of whom likely wish she would just go away. And she does it by being completely and uniquely herself and without giving into the usual basic entry requirements into that high-powered male world of being at least some degree of “decorative”. She inspires me to be strong. She inspires me to be me.
This month it is necessary for me to get my message written early. Sitting here I remembered that the vernal equinox is in a few days on the 20th of March. I think I like this time of year the best, as it starts to warm up enough to get outside and crank up the garden. Nature is waking up and some of the early flowers will be blooming soon. Plus now is the time to get some of the hardy crops going. Last year was the first time in many years that I grew potatoes and was pleasantly reminded that even potatoes are much better when they have only been out of the ground for a couple of hours. I don’t want to bore you to death with garden talk, but it does lead into something I wanted to write about, namely sustainability and population.
In regards to sustainability, you would think that being frugal with resources would be second nature to a prudent, logical and rational mind. But sadly our human tendency is to use something until we use it up, or in the case of living organisms, until we push them to extinction. Whether from population pressure or the desire to make a profit, we use resources at frightening rates. Getting more involved in sustainability is a good thing to do and I plan to do more myself by trying to buy local and using some of the other “green” practices that are available to us. Sustainability is a broad subject and I think it would be interesting to have a speaker at one of our general meetings give a presentation on the subject.
As to population, when I was born in 1948, the population of the world was about 2.5 billion, and now it stands at 7.0 billion. It has nearly tripled in the 63 years that I have been around. I think over population is one of if not the most serious problems humanity is faced with. But the response we give to this problem is meager at best. I think we shrug it off partly because it is a very difficult problem and partly because people are more concerned with protecting a person’s right to have whatever size family they want. So we continue to add, at present, some 135 million people per year, while 56 million die.
Demographics and population statistics can be interesting and helpful in understanding how growth rates affect us. For instance, at present the world growth rate is 1.1 % which is down from a high around 2.2% in the mid-sixties. That looks pretty damn low, but you always have to remember that it is always growing. So with that 1.1% growth rate we get an increase of around 80 million per year. When you’re talking about a large number, like 7 billion, even a 1.1% growth rate represents a bunch of people.
It is quite understandable that a majority of people, world-wide, are busy surviving and not worrying about population growth. But I think it should be government policy to encourage its citizens to adopt the idea of only replacing their selves. In fact, it would be nice if population shrank a little, without doing it with wars and starvation. And wouldn’t it be nice to leave a little oil in the ground, a few trees standing, and a few fish in the seas, for the future and our grandchildren.