Utah is growing fast. Will there be enough water for everyone?

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
Stephanie Woolstenhulme stands in front of a wooded site where a new well is due to be sunk to supply water to households in Oakley, Utah, Oct. 25, 2022. Utah is among the driest states in the country and has seen a population boom that is straining its water resources.
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Water is gold in the American West. It’s an arid region locked in a yearslong drought.

But that hasn’t stopped an influx of new residents looking for open land, cheaper housing, and beautiful vistas. Take parched Utah, whose population grew by 18% to 3.25 million from 2010 to 2020. That’s a faster increase than any other state in the nation.

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An influx of new residents is straining Utah’s water supply. Here is how the state is beginning to balance the demands of growth with the reality of limited resources.

That migration has pushed up the price of housing and sparked debate over affordability. It’s also called into question whether there is enough water to go around.

Oakley, Utah, has suspended all water hookups to new houses. The moratorium will last until the town can dig a new $3.4 million well.

Others say that, by conserving and charging more for water, Utah could manage growth without drastic measures. Currently the state has the nation’s cheapest water rates.

This year Utah legislators passed bills mandating water metering for landscape use, creating a turf buyback program, and setting limits for turf use at new state-owned buildings.

The challenge of managing water to support population growth in the state is just getting started, says Oakley city planner Stephanie Woolstenhulme.

“Water will always be an issue in Utah,” she says.

Outside Stephanie Woolstenhulme’s office window, the first snowfall of the season has dusted the streets. She looks delighted, and not just because she’s a skier. Her community needs all the precipitation it can get to replenish the springs and aquifers that water its roughly 1,600 residents. “Water is gold here,” she says.

Ever since European settlers crossed the Rockies, access to water has defined the development of the American West. Water irrigates farms, hydrates households, powers machinery. But a prolonged drought that began in 2000 has become the Southwest’s driest 22-year period in 12 centuries, according to analyses of tree-ring records.

This cycle of dryness comes amid a population boom in drought-prone states like Utah. Its residents grew by 18% to 3.25 million from 2010 to 2020, faster than any other state, even before the work-from-home trend took hold.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

An influx of new residents is straining Utah’s water supply. Here is how the state is beginning to balance the demands of growth with the reality of limited resources.

That migration has pushed up the price of real estate and, as elsewhere, sparked debate in Utah over housing availability and affordability for average families. But the debate is increasingly laced with other concerns: Will there be enough water for everyone? And who gets priority?

In Oakley those concerns reached a head in summer 2021. Citing low levels of water in storage tanks to fight summer fires, the city voted to suspend all water hookups to new houses. “We’ve trodden the line between being able to provide water for the citizens that live here and accommodate growth,” says Ms. Woolstenhulme, the city planner. “Then we kind of hit the line where we could no longer do that.”

The moratorium remains in place until Oakley can build a new $3.4 million well to increase its capacity. That could be a year or more away. For now, builders are either digging their own wells or getting permits to install water lines that the city has agreed to connect after the ban ends.

Conserving water, managing growth

Across the parched Southwest, forecasting how much water will be available to supply housing and other users is complicated by climate change. The 22-year drought may be a cycle that turns wetter, or a new normal that forces hard choices. Annual flows in the Colorado River, on which 40 million people depend, are already so low that Western states are being asked to do more with less of their current share

Some here argue that it’s time for a hard stop on breakneck development. But adaptation to a drier climate is also an option, one that Utah has belatedly begun to embrace, even as it remains a prolific user of what water it does have.

By conserving more water and charging market rates to users, say advocates, Utah could manage its growth without tapping out its resources.

“We have incentives to waste water,” says Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, a nonprofit organization.

Those incentives help explain why cities in Utah, the second driest state after Nevada, have lush summer lawns. The state has the nation’s cheapest water rates and is among the largest municipal users per capita. It also relies on property taxes to help fund municipal utilities, which effectively gives a free ride to schools, churches, and other tax-exempt institutions. A Republican lawmaker recently proposed a tax bill that would strip water from property taxes and require all users to pay for their water.

Around 70% of water in Utah’s towns and cities goes to irrigate nonessential landscapes, such as sidewalk strips and ornamental lawns that nobody uses for picnics or playing ball. “That grass is there because we have the cheapest water in the country,” says Mr. Frankel, who supports the proposed tax bill.

Meanwhile, the Great Salt Lake, the largest lake in the United States after the Great Lakes and a feeding ground for hundreds of species of migratory birds, is rapidly shrinking. It fell last year to its lowest level since 1963, and toxic dust from its exposed bed blows across the city on windy days.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File
Rows of homes in suburban Salt Lake City, April 13, 2019. Much of the boom in Utah’s housing market is playing out in Salt Lake City and its suburbs. Before the pandemic, the average single-family home sold for under $400,000. In October, the average sale was $551,000, according to Redfin.

The lake is fed primarily by the Bear River, which snakes into northern Utah. That same river also supplies water districts near the lake that have proposed diverting more water to households and other users. Similarly, in southern Utah, where resort towns are booming, the state has proposed a controversial 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell, which itself has shrunk so much that the project seems a nonstarter.

Joel Briscoe, a state representative in Salt Lake City who serves on the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee, says lawmakers in Utah have finally woken up to the stress on rivers and the need for conservation. “We’ve not been taking this seriously before,” he says.

Ripping up lawns

This year, Utah’s legislature passed bills that mandated water metering for landscaping, created a statewide turf buyback program, and set limits on turf at new state-owned buildings. It also set aside $40 million to protect the Great Salt Lake.

Mr. Briscoe, a Democrat, says he still encounters rural lawmakers who ask him why Utah can’t just build more dams and pipelines. Others object to funding programs to encourage the conversion of lawns into drought-tolerant gardens. “They tell me, ‘Nobody wants a front yard with a bunch of rocks,’” he says.

In fact, a growing number of homeowners in Utah are ripping up their lawns, says Chase Fetter, who runs a specialist landscaping company in Salt Lake City. His company replants yards with native shrubs and grass, and drought-tolerant trees, and then installs automated irrigation systems. These measures can cut outdoor water use by 75%. “People are concerned about their water use, and these yards need so much less,” he says.

Much of the boom in Utah’s housing market, and the stress on its water supplies, is playing out in Salt Lake City and its suburbs. Before the pandemic, the average single-family home sold for under $400,000. In October, the average sale was $551,000, according to Redfin.

Oakley lies over a pass in the Wasatch Mountain Range in a narrow valley hemmed in by another range. Working farms occupy part of its central core. But it is within commuting range of Salt Lake City and is a short hop to Park City, a popular ski resort. That proximity has driven up the price of its real estate.

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
Chase Fetter, a landscaper, stands in front of a drought-resistant garden he installed at a house in Salt Lake City, Oct. 26, 2022. Mr. Fetter's company sees growing demand for conversions of lawns to native shrubs and trees that use less water.

Last year the average house in Oakley sold for $492,000, says Wade Woolstenhulme, the city’s mayor (his cousin is married to Ms. Woolstenhulme). This year the price hit $761,000. That cost reflects a paucity of starter homes: Most available houses sit on large lots. But remote working has juiced the demand to live in rural redoubts like Oakley, says Mr. Woolstenhulme.

“I can sell my house in California for $1 million and come up here and buy a really, really nice house for $750,000,” he says. “Why would you live in a smoggy city when you can do your work here?”

For now, Oakley’s moratorium on water hookups acts as a brake on development. Construction using permits issued before the ban, and remodeling using existing water lines, is continuing. But builders looking for land to subdivide are going elsewhere.

When the city announced its policy, Ms. Woolstenhulme and other officials got calls from other communities in Utah that had similar concerns and wanted to understand its legalities. So did Kay Richins, the mayor of Henefer, a town of about 800 people north of Oakley that imposed a water moratorium in 2018. He says his town will lift its ban when it completes a new well next year and that he expects a burst of activity to follow.

But he’s not sure that any new housing will serve existing residents who worry about being priced out. “I’d like our children to stay here and raise their families here,” he says.

Too many people?

Mr. Richins sees plenty of downside in Utah’s demographic boom, given the stress on water supplies. “Why do we want this [population] growth when we don’t have the water as a state? They just keep putting up apartments on every corner,” he says.

At times, the tussle over water access in Utah feels like a proxy for a broader sense of disquiet in small communities that fear being overwhelmed by newcomers – NIMBYism dressed up as water-capacity concerns. Officials in Oakley insist that they’re not trying to stop development by withholding water permits. “We did it because we were out of water for public safety. We couldn’t meet our needs,” says Mayor Woolstenhulme.

The belief that a larger population exceeds Utah’s water capacity is common, but may be misplaced, argues Mr. Frankel. He wants to see action on conservation and market-rate pricing, particularly for large users of outdoor water, not for more towns to be declared off-limits to developers. “If we can lower our water usage, we can effectively double our supply,” he says.

Before Oakley suspended hookups, it had already begun to limit outdoor water use by residents. And when the moratorium ends, the city is mulling a change so that water rates increase sharply for large users, which isn’t currently the case.

For Ms. Woolstenhulme, the challenge of managing water resources to support more sustainable growth is just getting started. “Water will always be an issue in Utah. It will. So the fact is, just because we have a new well, it does not mean that we can just use as much water as we please,” she says.

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