ST. GEORGE — In the perpetual discussion of growth and water, public officials and developers in Southern Utah are sometimes made the villain by those who accuse them of greed and allowing “unchecked growth” that could ultimately leave the region dry.
With the long-sought Lake Powell Pipeline becoming increasingly politically unfeasible for the time being, water managers have had to reconsider their options and move on conservation projects once considered to be out of reach due to cost or other limiting factors.
“We’ve had to pull everything off the shelf,” Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, previously told St. George News.
These options have included getting the county and local municipalities to adopt the strictest water conservation rules for new construction in the state that, as it turns out, were already being applied by a majority of developers.
Some home-building groups, such as the Southern Utah Home Builders Association, even helped craft the new rules.
“We were very supportive of codifying those practices,” said Stacy Young, government affairs director for the home builders association, said.
The county’s strict conversation standards for new construction in Washington County came about last summer, following many months of work with local governments, developers and other parties.
In this file photo, Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager Zach Renstrom speaks at the Washington County Water Summit, St. George, Utah, Nov. 9, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
“They’ve been phenomenal in that process,” Renstrom said. “They’ve put in a lot of time and resources to come up with what I would call a reasonable and rational approach to moving forward to make sure our homes are water efficient.”
The construction and landscaping standards already used by the association and over builders that were incorporated into the new construction ordinances now provide a baseline moving forward, Renstrom said.
Among the code requirements and conservation practices being used in new construction for homes are the installment of energy and water-efficient appliances, using less grass in favor of water-friendly desert landscaping, putting in parallel water systems for culinary and reuse water and adding water recirculation systems.
The installation of the parallel water system is for when the county’s anticipated reuse water system comes online, Young said. While the culinary system will deliver drinking-quality water to the home proper, the reuse, or recycled water system, will be used for outdoor watering.
As people in Washington County and the state overall are estimated to use up to 60% of their culinary water for outdoor watering, the eventual switch to reuse water is meant to replace that amount and help conserve and stretch the area’s drinking water supply.
The replacement of lawns in general with desert-friendly landscaping is also seen as a big factor in conservation. New residential lots are limited in how much grass they can have while non-functional grass is prohibited for new commercial, institutional and industrial projects.
In this file photo, turf is being removed and replaced with desert-friendly landscaping at the Washington City Cemetery as a part of the Flip Blitz water conservation campaign, Washington City, Utah, May 19, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
“Probably the single biggest place where we can converse water is on ornamental grass outside,” Young said.
The water district continues to offer a rebate of $2 per square foot of grass to homeowners who remove and replace their lawns with water-efficient landscaping. Earlier this month the water district reported it had rebated over $1 million and replaced over 800,000 square feet of turf since the start of the program last December.
The water recirculation systems now required via municipal and county code are also seen as a way to save on water and water bills. The system works by moving water in a home through a closed, recirculating loop instead of allowing it to flow down the drain unused.
Young said these systems can be costly to install, yet are “not a terribly expensive addition and the water saving are considerable.”
A fact people unfamiliar with development likely do not consider when talking about water use and construction is how much more water-efficient new construction has become over the years, Young added.
“The new construction is using a fraction of the water older construction is,” he said. “Probably a little over half is the typical difference between a home that was built 20 years ago and one that’s built today. … I don’t know if the layperson is factoring that in.”
As for the impacts the added conservation requirements have on the price of a new home, Young said they did not add much overall. The main concern builders have related to building costs is increases in impact fees, he said.
“That does put on a cost pressure,” Young said.
Concerning the claim some people make about greedy developers not caring about creating a severe lack of water in the future, due to ever-increasing building, both Young and Renstrom said developers want to make sure their projects are as water-friendly as possible.
“We’re having many conversations with entities that have concerns or want to know more about what’s going on with water,” Renstrom said.
This has included the developers behind the area’s master-planned communities who have been mostly positive about water conservation measures, he said.
“They all have the same concern,” Renstrom said. “They come in and ask what they can do to make sure their development is water efficient.”
Among those measures, which was also codified on the county and municipal level, is a requirement for developers to prove their projects have access to water either through the water district or another source before they can build.
Recently, the water district produced a 20-year water conservation plan that, if all parties involved follow it, is anticipated to keep the county’s water supply viable for the next two decades.
The plan allows for an estimated 72,000 additional water connections in the county. This will require a water supply of 43,000 acre-feet a year. Conservation measures, the county’s regional water reuse system, new projects and additional water sources within the county will produce up to 47,000 acre feet annually, according to plan estimates.
The Southern Utah Home Builders Association supports the water district’s plan, Young said.
The 20-year plan is not meant to be a replacement for the Lake Powell Pipeline, but rather a means to secure water resources up to 2042 by which time water managers hope the pipeline is built and in use.
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