The Times-Independent

City elections: One set of water studies, many conflicting conclusions

Some candidates see bleak water future; others disagree

The Shelley Diversion sends part of Mill Creek underground to Faux Falls and down to Ken’s Lake, which Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency users then pull for irrigation and residential use. Photo by Carter Pape

Moab residents and officials often cite concerns with water availability in the valley when it comes to discussions about the city’s potential for growth. Since 2019, those concerns have figured most prominently into discussions about increasing visitation in Moab.

However, as of June 2019, 50% of Moab’s municipal water was used by residents, and 16% of its water went to overnight accommodations, according to the City of Moab.

Estimates from the city also published June 2019 indicate that current groundwater use across the entire valley is 9,100 acre-feet per year. The city also estimated the groundwater production potential across the entire valley collectively to be 15,800 acre-feet annually. The two together mean that the valley was collectively using around 60% of its water use potential, according to estimates by the city.

The figure is corroborated by more recent estimates from the state engineer that Moab could use 50-100% more water than it currently does without exceeding the valley’s safe yield.

According to the city’s draft Water Conservation Plan Update for 2021, total water use in the valley has trended slightly down since 2005 even as population and visitation have grown. Water usage per capita has also trended down since 2005, according to the update.

Before the 2021 update, the city’s 2016 water conservation plan indicated that the city could more than double its population before using as much water as was believed to be available in the valley. And before that, the 2010 conservation report also found that the city could double its population before needing to find new sources of water.

The city’s stated goal is to reduce per capita water usage from 280 gallons per day per capita last year to 230 gallons per day per capita in 2030.

As for the longer term, there are many more factors to consider. For many, climate change is the primary example of such a factor.

Estimates from NASA made in 2013 suggested that southeastern Utah would see a reduction in total annual rainfall between 0 and 10% by the year 2084. However, the precipitation estimates do not directly translate into how much water Moab will have available to use in the long-term.

Factors such as increased storm severity and increased evapotranspiration (both proven consequences in the West of climate change) mean that less precipitation will infiltrate the valley’s groundwater systems.

As for water policy, The Salt Lake Tribune recently published a story in which various experts criticized the low rates Utahns pay for water — particularly, what they pay for excessive water use — and suggested that increasing the cost of using lots of water would reduce water usage.

With all of this in mind, The Times-Independent asked the candidates for mayor of Moab the following set of questions:

First, how much risk do you believe Moab faces of overdrawing its aquifer in the next 10 years? Why?

Second, to meet the city’s water conservation goals, what policies will you implement to reduce per capita water usage in Moab? Or, would you set less ambitious goals?

Each candidate left in the races answered, except Sherri Costanza and Mike McCurdy. Here’s what they said, edited for clarity:

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