Utah can’t save or stretch its precious water if it can’t super accurately measure it

Aug 23, 2022, 10:34 AM

FILE: An active Monsoon season will not have an impact on Utah's drought. (Pineview reservoir file ...

FILE: An active Monsoon season will not have an impact on Utah's drought. (Pineview reservoir file photo)

(Pineview reservoir file photo)

As the Western megadrought stretches on, conservation, rate hikes or tearing out turf may not be enough. There’s still a thirsty population, an agricultural industry and the shrinking Great Salt Lake to save. Each need pushes storage demands tighter and tighter. If water dips to dire levels, some Utah rights holders may not be able to use their full allotment.

“We have multiple reservoirs that are empty, which leaves primary users grappling with enough water to go around,” said State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen during an Aug. 16 legislative interim hearing.

To figure out who can divert water and when they can do it during times of shortage, the Utah Division of Water Rights wants to create a more synchronized schedule, known as a distribution system.

University of Utah water law professor and attorney Emily Lewis said an organized statewide water distribution system is critical to knowing water levels, where streams reach, if water gets where it needs to go and what rights holders have priority when supply is low.

Think of it this way. Imagine you don’t know how much money you get in your paycheck and you don’t know how much you spend on rent and utilities. How do you know how much you can save for a rainy day? The answer is: you simply just don’t know.

According to the prior appropriation doctrine, people who obtained a water right first have dibs before anyone else who secured a right after them. The senior water rights holder can use all their allocation before the next person in line can use any. This is particularly important during droughts when there isn’t enough water to fulfill all the needs.

The trouble is that Utah is currently a patchwork of water systems, each with its own pecking order for rights. The state engineer pointed out that “some folks that may be senior on one system may not be senior when they’re combined with the basin as a whole.”

The most recent example of where a distribution schedule is needed is the over-taxed Colorado River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wants a 2 to 4 million acre-feet cut, and the basin states missed the mid-August deadline. While Utah was spared from cuts for the moment, it’s still a future possibility.

If Utah doesn’t streamline its monitoring system, Lewis said it’s going to be incredibly hard to accomplish changes like HB 33. The bill passed earlier this year altered Utah law to allow water rights holders to lease the water to another user or give it to natural lands, such as the Great Salt Lake. Previously, they would have lost their right for not using it.

“Every single person who wants to do in-stream flow for the Great Salt Lake, it’s not going to happen until we have the distribution mechanisms to understand that that water is actually going to where we think it’s going to go,” Lewis said. “We can’t do water markets because we don’t know if we can move water the way that we want it to move for financial transactions. We can’t do things like split season leasing because we don’t know where the water is going.”

A water market is where water rights holders can buy, sell, trade and lease water. Split season leasing is when another user can make use of a part of the right for a single growing season.

Currently, there are about 40 different distribution systems throughout the state that are monitored by individual water commissioners, according to Jared Manning, a deputy state engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights.

Some bodies of water, like the Provo and Bear rivers, have a technology known as telemetry to monitor real-time water levels and flow rates. Manning said the data helps build accounting models that then help “the commissioner know how much water he needs to then allocate or portion out to each water user.”

Without it, water commissioners manually calculate the levels and flow. That isn’t the most efficient or transparent method, according to Manning. Instead of receiving once-a-year water reports, telemetry could provide daily accurate water data.

It is key to making HB 33 work the way it was intended.

With telemetry installed, it’s easy to lease a water right and know the water will go where it’s supposed to, Manning said. But it’s a lot harder to lease rights along the Weber River, for example, since it doesn’t have constant monitoring in place.

And what if someone wanted to lease a water right where there’s no water commissioner and no one is actively regulating the water? Manning said that would be something they would have to figure out on a case-by-case basis. Not an optimal solution.

“We would like to get at least all the systems that we regulate on telemetry,” Manning said.

KSL 5 TV Live

Great Salt Lake

(Tanner Siegworth/KSL TV)...

Alex Cabrero

South end of Great Salt Lake up nearly 4 feet since berm raised in February

Most Utahns know the Great Salt Lake is in danger as the effects of the drought shrunk the lake and water levels reached a historic low in 2022.

10 months ago

Draining Lake Powell...

Carter Williams, and Matt Johnson, KSL TV

Lake Powell could rise 50 to 90 feet over the next few months

Federal water managers say they believe Lake Powell will rise anywhere between 50 and 90 feet this spring and summer after the nation’s second-largest reservoir dropped to its all-time low again earlier this year.

10 months ago

Follow @KSL5TVLike us on Facebook...

Karah Brackin

Spring runoff water redirected to shrinking Great Salt Lake

To help regulate flooding concerns through the spring runoff season, water conservancy districts are coming together with a solution.

10 months ago

The Great Salt Lake Marina filled with water after being dried out last summer. (KSLTV)...

Dan Rascon

Rush of water to Great Salt Lake means boats can return to marina

Utah residents are celebrating as the Great Salt Lake Marina boat ramps reopened Tuesday due to water returning to the bay. 

11 months ago

Follow @KSL_AlexCabreroLike us on Facebook...

Alex Cabrero

Water levels rising on Great Salt Lake after series of storms

The southern part of the Great Salt Lake is up now up 3 feet from its historic low last year.

11 months ago

Receding Salt Lake...

Kyle Dunphey, Deseret News

Great Salt Lake: Cox urges scientists to ease up on ‘doom and gloom’ messaging

Cox urged the room full of scientists and activists to scale back on what he called the “doom and gloom,” celebrate incremental improvements, and be careful with messaging around the Great Salt Lake.

12 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Stack of old laptops with dark background...

PC Laptops

Old Laptop Upgrades You Need to Try Before Throwing it Away

Get the most out of your investment. Try these old laptop upgrades before throwing it out to keep it running fast and efficient.

Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...

BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.

Close up of an offset printing machine during production...

Les Olson IT

Top 7 Reasons to Add a Production Printer to Your Business

Learn about the different digital production printers and how they can help your company save time and money.

vintage photo of lighting showroom featuring chandeliers, lamps, wall lights and mirrors...

Lighting Design

History of Lighting Design | Over 25 Years of Providing Utah With the Latest Trends and Styles

Read about the history of Lighting Design, a family-owned and operated business that paved the way for the lighting industry in Utah.

Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...

Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.

notebook with password notes highlighted...

PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.

Utah can’t save or stretch its precious water if it can’t super accurately measure it