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City Considers Expanded Recycling Programs: Rain Water

Aug 10, 2015 09:20AM ● Published by Bryan Scott

Rain Water

By Scott Bartlett

Any good hiker planning a backpacking trip will tell you: if you take care of the ounces, the pounds will take care of themselves. The same could be said for Utah’s water supply.

Utah’s rate of water use exceeds that of all other western states, and Murray City is expanding a rain barrel program to do its part in reducing that rate.

In partnership with the Utah Rivers Council, Murray residents can purchase 50-gallon rain barrels at a subsidized rate of $40. The program is also available in Sandy, Park City and Ogden. The barrels can be purchased at the subsidized rate for a limited time at savesomethingutah.org. Residents of other areas can purchase the barrels for $75.

The barrels require a simple, do-it-yourself installation that involves cutting a rain gutter downspout at the height of the barrel and then directing the shorter downspout through a screen in the lid of the barrel. An outlet hose is then attached at the bottom, and collected rainwater can be used to supplement or replace other water used for landscaping.

The rain barrels include an inlet screen to prevent mosquito problems, and the lids are locked to keep children out. An upper outlet hose serves as overflow protection. Pre-ordered barrels will be available for pickup in late August.

Rain harvesting in Utah is legal without owning a water right. Only those installing more than one barrel need to register with the Division of Water Rights.

Utah’s water use rate of 248 gallons per person per day is among the highest in the nation. The rain barrel program is meant to alleviate some of the pressure on Utah’s water resources.

From a certain angle, it makes sense that water demands in a state as dry as Utah would be higher than in wetter states – less rain falling directly on crops and landscaping means more water must be drawn from reservoirs. However, the question remains as to how much agriculture and landscaping the state’s water resources can and should support, what the best uses for those resources are, and how can they best be managed to make them go as far as possible.

According to a May 2015 state legislative audit of projections of Utah’s water needs, 82 percent of the state’s developed water is used for agricultural purposes, leaving only 18 percent for municipal and industrial use. The rain barrel program would operate to offset whatever part of that 18 percent is used for landscaping – perhaps both a literal and proverbial drop in the bucket.

Recent water use reporting shows that in a typical home, 70 percent of water used is for irrigation or other uses outside the home. Change has to start somewhere, and leading by example through efforts such as rain water harvesting would afford private residents some moral high ground when it comes to water conservation.

Water rights and use in Utah are nothing if not contentious. Water right owners must prove they have put their allotment to beneficial use, or risk losing their water altogether. Claims on water rights often go back to statehood. Water sources may be overextended, saved only by right holders not drawing everything they are entitled to on paper. Rights are bought and sold together with or independent from real property, and available water or lack thereof often determines the feasibility of property development. With Utah’s population projected to double to nearly six million people by 2060, the problem will not be going away any time soon.

Among the hotly debated water issues now is the practice of subsidizing water costs through property taxes. Some argue that this artificially deflates the cost of water, and in turn makes people feel free to use much more than they would if they had to pay actual cost for the water they used.

A close cousin is the practice of not metering secondary water systems. To conserve culinary, or drinking, water, many municipalities have installed secondary water systems, which are used for principally for irrigation. Those systems are often used for both farms and residential lots, and save municipalities the cost of treating the water up to culinary standards. Such secondary systems are often not metered. Water users are instead charged a rate based on lot size or estimated use. Critics say such a pay system leads to overuse since irrigators are not paying for what they actually use, and can draw more water from the system than has been allotted to them.

And then there are the state’s water needs projections. The Division of Water Resources recently found that Utah’s demand for water would outstrip its current supply within 25 years. To satisfy that increasing demand, water users would either need to conserve what is already available, convert agricultural water to municipal use, or develop new sources, such as the Lake Powell Pipeline, at a cost of billions of dollars. All of those measures carry their own level of controversy.

But the legislative audit found that the Division of Water Resources based those projections on inaccurate data and dubious assumptions. A single employee is tasked with managing self-reported water usage from public sources, a task that may require much more attention. In one case, numbers were used from a city in New York that happened to have the same name as a Utah municipality.

The audit states that some areas have already attained the Division of Water Resources’ long-term water use goal of 220 gallons per person per day, and suggests that the state can do much better through conservation. Using that higher number may make Utah’s circumstances look worse than they really are. If water demands can be lowered through conservation – such as the current rain barrel program – perhaps larger projects are unnecessary.

The audit suggests metering all sources of water, both culinary and secondary, so that users both pay for what they actually use and can easily see exactly how much they are using. It suggests the legislature adopt policies requiring the phasing in of universal metering.

Also suggested in the audit is conservation pricing, which would eliminate the current flat-rate, subsidized system most often used in the state. Conservation pricing involves a tiered system which charges a lower rate for the first block of water used, then progressively higher rates as consumption increases. Such a tiered plan may promote reduced usage rates as water users try to stay in the lower price bracket.

Above all, the audit states that before the state can decide what measures it has to take, such as conservation, conversion or new water development, it has to start with better measurements.

Utah’s current drought does not help matters either. Dry winters mean reduced snowpack, which in turn means less runoff and lower levels in water reservoirs.

Amid all the negativity, the rain barrel program offers private individuals a meaningful first step in doing their part to conserve what is theirs to manage.

Homeowners wishing to more carefully water their lawns can refer to the weekly lawn watering guide provided by the Division of Water Resources at conservewater.utah.gov/guide.html. The weekly guide measures how much rain has fallen in each region of the state, then recommends how long and how often homeowners should water. The site also offers conservation tips, a water use calculator and other tools for managing water use.  


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