Every time Utah enters a short-term or long-term drought, out come the histrionics. "The sky is falling," or not falling, in the case of rain or snow. But crying "wolf" is not a remedy. Careful planning by considering existing and future technological advances is one obvious solution.
When we make long-term forecasts of future water needs, planners need to consider one important fact: Water conservation technology is progressing rapidly. Great strides are being made and will continue to be made by innovators.
Individual Americans do not need volumes of water to survive comfortably, and urbanites don't require as much water as they are presently using to maintain their current lifestyle.
Indoors, Utahns currently use 50-100 gallons of water per capita per day. But future generations will not need nearly that much. One of the major users of water is the toilet. Today, no flush urinals are being installed in commercial establishments and government agencies. Also being touted are dual-flush toilets, giving the user a choice of flushes. And there is always the old standby: "If it's brown, flush it down; if it's yellow, let it mellow."
Another way to save water is to plumb the shower and bathroom sink to the toilet, and flush with grey water. And Bill and Melinda Gates are currently sponsoring a competition to reinvent the toilet. The loo must operate without running water, line power, or a septic system, plus be inexpensive to operate.
To reduce water use in the shower, we can always install ultra-efficient showerheads and take shorter showers. Additionally, technologists are developing more water-efficient washing appliances to clean our clothes and dishes.
In future decades, Utahns will survive nicely on 25 gallons or less of water per capita per day. That is less than half of what we currently use indoors.
Two other important facts need to be considered: First, we need only treat our drinking and cooking water to high standards. Secondly, almost none of the water used indoors is consumptively used. This is critical. Anita Brown, writing in Time magazine (Sept. 3, 2011) notes:
"The idea of drinking water that was once in your toilet bowl may seem like a bad joke, but it's not. Stripped of its impurities and rigorously tested to ensure its safety, reclaimed water is one of the most inexpensive and reliable supplies of water on earth."
So, in the future, Utah communities will theoretically be able to treat to a high standard and reuse most of the water they run through their homes.
Today, engineers are working on a variety of new water treatment technologies that will make treating almost any water cost-effective, including Utah Lake and ocean water.
There is also the issue of outdoor water use. We can always change our landscape to a modified xeriscape. And we can install water-harvesting equipment which is now legal on our roofs and in our yards to supplement our water supply. As for our gardens, we can convert to drip systems, or some future system that is even more efficient.
But instead of going whole hog into water conservation, we need to do it in a planned and organized fashion so that we don't cause financial havoc to community water systems, create public health problems (like those recently in Cedar Hills), or violate water rights. We must also make intelligent decisions on water pricing and retrofitting.
But a healthy municipal water future is definitely within our grasp.
R. Dennis Hansen is a civil engineer working as a planner for the Bureau of Reclamation. He lives in Orem. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Interior or the federal government.