Where does all of Utah’s water go?

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Quick quiz: Where does 82 percent of Utah's water go?

Answer: Farms and ranches.

It's a fact that could easily escape the notice of Utahns because the public conversation about conservation focuses so much on home landscaping.

Related story: Fox 13 investigates SLC’s top water users, finds dramatic reductions

But a simple percentage doesn't tell the story, says Sterling Brown, who is the Vice President of Public Policy with the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.

"Utah production agriculture diverts 82 percent of the water but only uses approximately 50 percent of that water," Brown said.

That means that the canals and pipes that take water from the reservoir to the farm are losing at least half of their volume on the way.

And half may be optimistic, according to Zach Frankel with Utah Rivers Council.

"One study in the Heber Valley found that for every 8 gallons of water diverted from the stream, one gallon of water was used on the farm because the rest of it was lost in dirt canals where the seepage is massive," Frankel said.

Frankel proposes spending millions of tax dollars in upgrading farm irrigation rather than investing billions on reservoirs on the Bear River in northern Utah and on a pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George.

Brown, with the Farm Bureau, agrees that efficiency should be the first investment, though he supports the larger projects as well--saying they are critical to Utah's water future.

"As we double the population in Utah in the next number of years, how do we quench the thirst of the six million people who are coming?" Brown said.

4 comments

  • capsaicinone

    And of the “generous 50%” that’s supposed to end up on fields, much of that is lost in the irrigation process itself. Lost to evaporation from 12-8pm when it’s the hottest. These “turn’em on and forget” pivots do just that. Oh they do a great job coating every square inch of soil, but they irrigate 4 or 8 feet off the ground and the nozzle “mists” the water instead of just pouring. Some let them go and over irrigate. You can’t find anyone willing to move pipe anymore, even though its far cheaper than a wheel line or pivot. You can thank easy access to credit and subsidies for all the pivots that have taken over the landscape. Never mind, if you’re not willing to irrigate the corners, you lose 15-30% of your fields production.

    • bob

      There are more water-efficient ways, but do you have any idea what they cost? And therefore, what your FOOD would cost?

      Far better to cut out non-critical uses of water. Imagine what we could accomplish if people payed attention to how much water their lawns REALLY need. Or if we built links-style golf courses instead of vast carpets of thirsty grass. (The duffers would just have to take lessons.)

      But in the end, and regardless of climate cycles, there is a finite amount of water in the West, and an ever-growing human population. Water shortages are now a permanent fact of life. Not because of “global warming”, but because there are simply too many people choosing to live in an inappropriate place.

    • bob

      Another problem is your generalization. Not all the water sourced for irrigation would be available for domestic use otherwise. A deep well in the middle of a large ranch isn’t using water that would be available to anyone else. Other places, even in the West, happen to have virtually inexhaustible water supplies just because of the underlying geology. So it doesn’t really matter.

    • bob

      Lastly, your economic reasoning is fault. It’s a GOOD thing that we don’t have a large population of people who have nothing else to do but move pipe. Besides, a pivot doesn’t inherently use more water than sprinklers on pipes. It’s MORE efficient. It does its thing without the need to wait for an army of local kids, or migrant workers, to move it around. It’s speed (and therefore the amount it waters) can be adjusted for conditions. That kind of modern farming technology is the reason why America feeds not only itself but much of the world.

      Please provide a reference for the data showing that pivot systems are costlier than employing the MILLIONS who would be needed to “move pipe” across the United States.

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