Cedar City Councilman, Tyler Melling, posted this on Facebook May 4th. It is reprinted here with his permission.
May 4, 2021
Here are some thoughts on water before the public meetings this week and next week. We all get a better community when we study the issues and have meaningful dialogue.
WATER AND POLICYMAKING
At tonight’s planning commission meeting, tomorrow’s city council meeting, and in Cedar City budget meetings next week, water is a common theme. Going into those discussions, I’ve provided my understanding of some of the basics here so you can tell me where I’m wrong or at least understand where my mind is on this important issue. Sorry in advance about the length of the post.
Although I don’t have time to reply to every email, I do read them all at MTyler@cedarcity.org. You are also welcome to have a face-to-face discussion with me anytime after council meetings or whenever else it needs to happen.
There has been a lot of talk about water and what we should do about it, from importing or recycling water to building moratoriums to waging a war on lawns. Over the last few months, these discussions have become more prevalent in the public eye and with the publicity, the issue becomes oversimplified. Water is a complex issue and we risk serious harm to our communities by oversimplifying it.
WHAT DO WE HAVE?
In Utah and most other western states, water rights were issued to people who made use of water through farming, mining, drinking, or other uses. These rights are private property rights, no different than if you owned a piece of land, cash in your wallet, or precious metals. The system encourages beneficial use of the water and penalizes conservation.
In our basin, new water rights were issued until the 1960s. We have over 50,000 acre-feet (1 acre-foot=325k gallons/yr) of rights allocated in our basin on the books, but only about 28,000 of those are being used. However, the safe-yield of our basin is only about 21,000 acre-feet of water per year, which means that we can safely pump that amount from our aquifer without the risk of depleting it over time.
While we are not at serious risk of depleting our aquifer right away, we do run a deficit. In the immediate future, that means subsidence (soil collapse where we lose future storage capacity forever) and a lower water table resulting in exponentially-more expensive pumping costs.
After 5 years of discussions, the state implemented a groundwater management plan for our basin which terminates the ability to use those private property rights in water based on the date that the rights originated. The plan does not discriminate based on how the water is used, but is simply based on the priority date of the water. A study presented last year to the Cedar City council showed that most of the rights owned by Cedar City corporation for municipal use (your drinking water) will become unavailable for use between the years 2050-2080 unless something changes.
WHAT ABOUT THE WASTEFUL FARMERS?
We can demonize the farmers who use 75% of our basin’s water all we want, but their water rights are their own and they are working with a legal system that penalizes conservation. Significant change requires a change to state law that encourages conservation in agriculture instead of penalizing it.
Sen. Vickers and former Rep. Westwood lobbied for a conservation grant program a few years ago that helped with the cost of materials if farmers paid for the labor to adapt their typical pivot systems to better low-efficiency spray systems. These systems help conserve, but don’t fix everything.
We could simply ban farming in our desert state, but with last year’s supply chain interruptions, it would be short-sighted to close the door on local agriculture, especially when our country’s food-producing centers also face water concerns.
Instead, we need to recognize that the water rights are private rights belonging to the owners, that cities are free to purchase the older farming rights but haven’t done so in the past, that our current system penalizes conservation and we need state-level changes to allow conservation, and that agriculture is part of Utah’s future but requires some adaptation.
WHAT ABOUT UNCONTROLLED GROWTH?
From a water standpoint, growth can be good or bad. Our building and zoning policies, water billing practices, and infrastructure all contribute to the water situation in different ways. Our focus needs to be on meaningful solutions that make sense for Cedar City.
Too often, we worry about problems from growth when out-of-towners move in. What we too often forget is that statewide, 80% of growth is from kids who grew up here. In Cedar City, we see the pressure on young families making living wages who cannot buy anything available on the market.
Imagine for a moment that you are a refugee from a war-torn country, and you have found your promised land of opportunity. Months later in your new home, a food shortage arises. Is your first instinct to tell your neighbor’s children that there isn’t enough food for them and that they need to move to the battleground that you just came from?
If you are new to Cedar City, we welcome you and are glad that you found a place that you want to call home. However, whether we found our promised land last year or our ancestors moved here generations ago, we have no right to tell today’s youth that we lacked the maturity to cope with adult problems and as a result there is no room for them. That is simply not acceptable. We cannot keep using water, a precious resource, as a bludgeon with which we beat and expel our very most precious resource, our youth.
Can we do better? Certainly. But rather than making blanket statements about all growth, we need to roll up our sleeves and find solutions. Tonight at planning commission, we’ll discuss a zoning policy that represents hundreds of hours of resident input as part of that solution, but we need to keep chipping away at the many layers of this issue. How and where we grow is a key component of that discussion.
WHAT ABOUT LANDSCAPING POLICIES?
If every house has so much lawn that we have to apply 10 households’ indoor water use to water each lawn, we’re in trouble. However, if a subdivision with more water-conscious landscaping and design builds a neighborhood park that services the recreation needs of hundreds of residents, then water for that turf and shade may be a good use of that water.
We also want to avoid the mistakes that others made in the past. If we equate “save water” with gravel landscaping, we’ll see an inhospitable outdoor environment and higher air conditioning costs. However, if we employ water-wise landscaping principles like the ‘Localscapes’ program promoted by the USU Extension and CICWCD, we can create a hospitable environment that balances water efficiency, function, and quality of life.
WHAT POLICY CHANGES ARE ON THE HORIZON?
As I mentioned, tonight’s planning commission meeting will discuss a zoning policy which makes better use of land and water resources while keeping the quality and integrity of the neighborhoods we love.
Tomorrow night, the city council will address some water policies relating to new development and annexed property.
In the near future, Cedar City will look at our water billing structure.
Right now, it is very inexpensive to turn your hose on and walk away. We are looking at a rate system that more closely matches other desert communities where indoor and modest outdoor water use remain affordable, but wasteful uses will be billed at a rate that more accurately reflects the cost burden of waste on our system.
Cedar City’s annual budget meetings start next week, and I’m sure there are water infrastructure projects that we will discuss and prioritize in that budget.
Over the next year, the Pine Valley Water Supply & Conservation Project environmental impact study should be completed. Once we are certain that we can offset any negative effects of construction and maintenance of the project, we’ll discuss the costs, benefits, timeline, and merits of the project. If it happens, we can almost double our water supply without depleting the aquifer of the adjacent valley. Once we have more information, we need to weigh the benefits against the portion that would be paid out of growth fees and how much would be paid by existing users. Those will be hard conversations that need to happen as we obtain more information in the future.
WHAT CAN I DO NOW?
Attend the public meetings and initiate face-to-face interactions with the people close to the issues. At the local and state level, we have plenty of incentives to waste water and too few incentives to conserve as individuals, farmers, and government bodies.
In the coming days, months, and years, there will be discussions about water rates, infrastructure spending, and building and zoning policies that make our city better and encourage the kinds of growth we want to see. If you want to be a good steward of our resources and preserve a future for our children here, please be a part of those discussions.