A crash course on Salt Lake Valley’s water supplyJul 07, 2021 12:01PM ● By Justin Adams
One of the most effective ways for residents to conserve water is to water their lawns just one less time per week. (CJPDS)
By Justin Adams | [email protected]
Water is one of those things that people take for granted. We don’t really talk about it much until it becomes an issue. So now that Utah and the rest of the southwest are experiencing historic levels of drought, some Salt Lake valley residents might be realizing how little they know about the topic. So here’s a crash course lesson on the valley’s water supply.
Who manages the valley’s water supply?
The answer to this question depends on where you live.
If you live on the west side of the valley, then most of your water comes from the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. They collect water from Jordanelle and Deer Creek reservoirs, as well as a collection of reservoirs in the Uinta Mountains. Twenty percent of its water also comes from groundwater, pumped from wells scattered around the valley.
The District then sells this water wholesale to cities including Draper, Herriman, Bluffdale, Riverton, South Jordan, South Salt Lake, Taylorsville, Midvale and West Jordan.
It also counts among its customers a few intermediary districts such as the Granger Hunter Improvement District, the Kearns Improvement District and the Magna Water Improvement District. While these smaller districts purchase as much as 90% of their water from Jordan Valley, they also supplement that with their own water supply from wells in the area.
The other big player when it comes to providing water to the Salt Lake Valley is the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake & Sandy.
As its name suggests, this district provides water to Salt Lake City and Sandy City, the first and sixth most populous cities in the state. But wait, there’s more!
Salt Lake City’s Public Utilities department is responsible for more than just its own residents. They also provide drinking water for Cottonwood Heights, Millcreek, Holladay and parts of South Salt Lake and Murray.
More than 60% of all that water comes from the streams of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon. That water is filtered by facilities owned by either the Metropolitan Water District or SLC. For example, the treatment facility at the mouth of Big Cottonwood is owned by SLC, while the treatment facility for Little Cottonwood is owned by Metropolitan Water District.
Additionally, some cities own and operate their own water infrastructure to supplement what they purchase from their respective districts. Sandy City, for example, collects and treats water from the Bell Canyon Reservoir. Many cities also rely on various canals throughout the valley as a source of secondary water.
How much does our water cost?
It can be quite expensive to collect, treat, transport and deliver water to the over 1 million people who live, work or play in the Salt Lake Valley.
The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District operates on an operations budget of about $79 million per year, while the Metro Water District has a budget of about $48 million.
Where does that money come from? The largest revenue source ($48 million) for the Jordan Valley is from its wholesale contracts with its various member agencies. An additional $7 million comes from retail customers, usually homeowners in unincorporated areas that purchase water from the district directly.
The second-largest source of revenue for the district is property taxes, which comes in at about $20 million per year. As a special district with taxing authority, water districts are able to levy a property tax on residents within the district boundaries. The property tax rate for Jordan Valley Water is .0004%. The Metro Water District is below .0003%.
While residents around the valley have likely seen their rates increase over the years due to inflation, they’re still paying much lower rates than many people around the country, according to Linda Townes, public information manager for Jordan Valley. That’s because Utah’s mountainous landscape allows gravity to move our water for us, rather than paying for pump stations which use a huge amount of costly electricity.
Who is running these districts?
Between such large budgets and the task of managing a resource as crucial as water, it bodes asking who’s in charge of these districts.
Special districts are typically run by a board of trustees. Jordan Valley operates under a board of nine members. While the Metro District has a seven-member board.
Members of the board aren’t elected. Instead they are appointed by various legislative bodies from within the district’s boundaries. Appointees can be elected officials themselves (such as South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey or Herriman City Councilmember Sherrie Ohrn who serve on the Jordan Valley board) or they can be city employees or even private residents—whatever the nominating body thinks will best represent their interests.
As a governmental body, districts are required to hold regular public meetings. They also publish their budgets and other reports each year to keep residents informed.
Are we in danger of running out of water?
Between the state’s historic drought and rapid population growth, some residents may wonder if we’re running out of water in the Salt Lake valley.
In short, the answer is no, residents of the Salt Lake valley don’t need to worry about rationing water anytime soon.
When it comes to growth, Townes said that water consumption hasn’t increased at the same rate as the population, suggesting that the District’s water conservancy efforts and efficiency standards have been effective.
“The good thing we’ve seen with growth is that we really expected our water use to skyrocket with the population growth and it hasn’t,” she said. “It’s stayed pretty steady, which means conservation is working. It’s happening. We are seeing a change.”
There are also still untapped sources of water which could come into play down the road. According to Townes, Jordan Valley expected to begin developing the Bear River in 2015. However, a combination of other new sources and increased water efficiency made that unnecessary. Now, they may not have to dam the Bear River until 2060.
“It’s a pretty cool river and one of the last ones that’s not damned. We don’t want to develop it. It’d be great if we didn’t have to, but it’s our job to make sure there’s enough water for people,” Townes said.
The Metro District is also in good shape when it comes to water supply. Speaking to the Sandy City Council last month, general manager Mike DeVries said there’s no need to worry.
“Despite poor precipitation and snow pack conditions, because of storage and Metro’s various water supplies, we’re in a healthy state when it comes to supply for our member cities. We’re not anticipating any sort of shortages for our metro at this point,” he said.
It’s also important to know that most of the state’s water systems are self-contained. For example, the systems that supply water throughout Salt Lake County aren’t connected to systems for other nearby counties. So if there are water shortages in other parts of the state, it wouldn’t be possible for them to dip into the supplies of the Jordan Valley or Metropolitan Districts, even if they were willing to share.
How can we conserve more water?
Whether from continued growth or continued droughts, water conservation will be increasingly important for residents of the Salt Lake valley. From the water districts themselves, to municipal governments to residents’ households, there’s a lot that can be done.
At the district level, Jordan Valley has set a good example by relandscaping all of their facilities to be water efficient by replacing turf with vegetation that’s more at home in Utah’s desert climate.
The District also provides a number of programs, rebates and incentives for residents to improve their water efficiency. Those can be found at www.utahwatersavers.com.
City governments are also getting in on the conservation effort by requiring new developments to meet certain water efficiency standards. Many cities have also taken proactive measures during our current drought. Cottonwood Heights, for example, announced that its popular splash pad at Mountain View Park would remain closed throughout the summer. Herriman City paused a requirement for developers to install landscaping on new projects, allowing them to delay the addition of extra vegetation until after the summer months.
Residents, meanwhile, have many options for conserving water. They can do small things like take shorter showers or turn off the faucet while they brush their teeth. They can take advantage of the previously mentioned programs and get a more water-efficient toilet or relandscape their yards. But the most effective and easy thing they can do, according to Townes, is simply water their lawns less. If everyone adjusted to watering their lawns just one less day per week, it would have a huge impact on the region’s water supply outlook.