America’s fastest growing urban area is stuck between a rock and a dry place

This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Office collaboration.

When Latter-day Saint migrants arrived in Utah in 1847, a verse from Isaiah served as consolation in the parched landscape: “The wilderness and the lonely place will rejoice for them; and the wilderness will rejoice, and bloom like the rose.

Lately, nowhere has the wilderness blossomed more than in the St. George area in the south of the state. The town is a picturesque outpost, with a red-rock desert framing green lawns and golf courses, all built around the pristine white Mormon Temple in the center of town.

Brigham Young members came here to grow crops, mostly cotton, hence his reputation as Dixie of Utah. Today, this relentless sun attracts so many tourists, retirees and students that St. George has become the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. According to Census Bureau data released in March, the metro, which houses 165,000 people, increased by 4% between 2016 and 2017.

“Six million people visit the region every year. As more people visit here some of them decide to stay, ”said St. George Mayor Jon Pike. The area remains a retiree community, “but we also have 33,000 K-12 students, and we have a rapidly growing university. [Dixie State University]. “Healthcare is a booming industry, and like many growing cities, St. George has a section of the city reserved for technology companies. Mixed-use development is emerging downtown. Growth is not Likely not slow anytime soon: State demographers believe the region will exceed 500,000 by 2065.

As with other growing desert towns, St. George is struggling with water supply issues. But the challenge here is unique. Remarkably low tariffs mean that residents of an area with just eight inches of annual precipitation use huge amounts of water. The average resident of St. George uses more than twice as much water as the average Los Angeles citizen.

Political leaders at state and local levels see this primarily as a supply issue. Their preferred solution is a gigantic $ 1.4 billion pipeline that would connect the region to Lake Powell, a reservoir along the Colorado River. Using pumping stations, the pipeline would carry water 140 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The goal is to store 86,000 acre-feet per year in nearby reservoirs and aquifers – more than enough, officials say, to meet the demand of the growing population and reduce reliance on the water supply. the declining virgin river, currently the main source of water in Washington County.

“We are certainly committed to conservation, but we don’t think it will take you on its own, especially with the organic growth and huge immigration that is happening in the Southwest,” said Ronald Thompson, chief executive of Washington County Water Conservancy. District, the wholesaler that supplies water to St. George and other towns in the county.

In 2006, the state legislature passed a bill to fund the Lake Powell project, but construction has since been delayed by phased planning (at this point, pipeline approval is on hold due uncertainty about which federal body has jurisdiction over the project).

Several state and regional environmental groups say the pipeline is far too aggressive and that basic conservation measures can meet the region’s water demand. Amelia Nuding, Senior Water Analyst for Western Resource Advocates, believes regional leaders should focus on three strategies for achieving rapid conservation success: better data collection, higher water prices, and building codes that require smart construction and landscaping. Not only would this meet St. George’s water needs, according to the Nuding group, it would prevent further depletion of an already overloaded Colorado River.

Utah typically uses less than its allotted share of Colorado River water, which is distributed among western states, but climate change and population growth are taxed relations between the interstate constituents of the river. “Yes, [Utah residents] are legally entitled to this Colorado River water, ”Nuding said. “But … I think there are some water management measures we should adhere to before we deplete the Colorado River further.”

The leaders have, for the most part, ignored the suggestions of the environmentalists. Data on water use in Utah is scarce; until recently, statewide water surveys only took place every five years. In 2010 – the latest state data available – per capita consumption in the St. George area was 325 gallons per day. More current figures from the city suggest conservation; St. George proper uses 250 gallons per person per day. Nevertheless, it still consumes more water than other cities in the South West. Las Vegas takes about 220 gallons per person each day; Tucson, considered a regional leader, uses 120.

The water tariffs here don’t punish heavy use. A St. George household that consumes 16,000 gallons per month would see a water bill of $ 47; an equivalent use would cost a household in Tucson $ 184. The Washington County Water Conservation District is increasing rates 5-10% each year until benchmarks are tripled, but even then they would be a bargain. compared to some cities.

Utah’s water distribution systems are largely gravity fed, which keeps costs down, and most homeowners have access to unmetered non-potable water for landscaping and irrigation. This, along with state oversight over water tariffs, keeps tariffs low – and consumption high.

Any major reduction in consumption here will require a cultural change. St. George is marketed as a desert oasis. Nine golf courses are located in the region, and it remains an agricultural stronghold. Local municipalities offer basic discounts on water conservation – St. George, for example, helps cover the cost of replacing high-flow toilets – but nothing at the city level which, for example, pays residents. to replace grass with landscaping adapted to the desert.

Mayor Pike announced developers who are voluntarily choosing water-smart home appliances and landscaping, and cited the planned community of Desert Color as an example. But the credibility of this water project has been called into question: its centerpiece is a 18 acre artificial pond.

That said, the growth of St. George could inherently drive efficiency. The construction of apartments and townhouses is finally catch up with demand, which will keep some new residents out of the sprawling single-family homes and backyards that gobble up so much water. Many new constructions will take place on agricultural land where water is already allocated.

But efficiency per person doesn’t mean less water use overall. Every inhabitant of St. George could cut their water use in half, but if the population more than doubles, the city will always use more water. This is the riddle of the growth of the desert. “We would be wise to diversify our sources,” Pike said. “If the Powell pipeline isn’t built, that would make a difference. … It would slow growth.

The construction of the pipeline, oddly enough, could lead to cost increases that could reduce water use. While the state would cover the initial costs of the pipeline, residents are on the hook for the long haul. In a letter to the governor of utah, state university economists said water tariffs would need to be increased six-fold for the region to meet its repayment obligations. “Of course, raising water prices that much would drastically decrease the demand for water from Washington County residents,” the economists wrote. “In our analysis, demand has decreased so much that the [Lake Powell pipeline] the water would remain unused.

If tariffs go up anyway, conservation advocates believe the pipeline talks are coming too soon. “Why don’t they just try [raising rates] now, and see how much the demand changes? Nuding said. “From a water management perspective, this makes perfect sense. “

In this desert town in bloom, rulers have a choice: let the roses turn brown or pay exorbitantly to keep them?

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