Conservation report card: Utah trying to cut use, but still a top water guzzler

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A federal study shows that Utah remains at the top of the list for per-capita water use even though the state has made great strides in conservation.

A new report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) ranks only Nevada higher in municipal and industrial water use per person in 2005 than Utah -- which makes sense, as the two states also are the most arid in the nation.

Because that aridity threatens water supplies, conserving during disruptive climate change has become paramount to state and local water agencies since 2000.

"We've seen huge reductions, for the most part really good response to public education," said Scott Paxman, assistant general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

The USGS report, undertaken every five years, shows that in 2005, Utah's per-capita use was 245 gallons per day. However, the Utah Division of Water Resources, which released its own study, estimates residents used 258 gallons each per day.

Even though the two agencies were working with the same numbers, the USGS had to show consistency across 50 states that didn't necessarily report uniformly, said Larry Spangler, a USGS water expert in Salt Lake City who helped Utah compile its information.

By comparison, according to federal data, Nevada used 303 gallons per person per day; Idaho, 244 gallons; Arizona, 204 gallons; and Colorado, 198 gallons.

While the federal study shows a decline in water use since 2000, the comparisons aren't direct because the agency has changed how it massaged the state-reported numbers, Spangler said.

The Water Resources Division's numbers are more consistent, and show that the per-capita water use in 1995 was 321 gallons; in 2000, 293 gallons, said Eric Klotz, the state Division of Water Resources conservation and education section chief.

Utah's goal is to get to 241 gallons by 2050, he said, and the state is "way ahead" in its progress.

County-level data show wide disparities in per-capita use, sometimes for odd reasons, Klotz said. Rich County's 1,196 gallons per capita is due to the need to keep the taps running day and night during brutally cold winters. Some dairies in Cache County are tied to the municipal culinary water system. So are the snow-making guns at Brian Head, which help drive up Iron County's number.

Such anomalies aside, officials agree that the easiest conservation efforts already have been achieved, especially since many residents think the "drought" is over when in fact aridity is a constant.

The real culprit is landscaping: Outdoor watering takes up 65 percent of all municipal and industrial water. Education efforts have focused on getting customers to run their sprinklers less.

People rise to the cause when they believe there is a crisis, but then relax into old bad habits, said Bart Forsyth, assistant general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District in Salt Lake County.

In 2005, Jordan Valley customers were down to 207 gallons per person per day; by 2008, considered post-drought, use was up to 231 gallons.

When the weather changed, "we knew there was going to be a rebound in water use," Forsyth said.

"What we're trying to get away from is that drought message," said Paxman, who noted that surveys always show people believe in conservation even if they don't practice it.

"As the generations change, as our kids grow up with the ethic," he said, "things will change."

Utah's water use declines

The Utah Division of Water Resources reports that per-capita water use per day has dropped significantly over the past decade.

1995 » 321 gallons

2000 » 293 gallons

2005 » 258 gallons

The state goal » 241 gallons by 2050

Utah's water use declines

The Utah Division of Water Resources reports that per-capita water use per day has dropped significantly over the past decade.

1995: 321 gallons

2000: 293 gallons

2005: 258 gallons

The state goal: 241 gallons by 2050