ST. GEORGE — As talk of the area’s economic outlook and pending business initiatives were underway at the 28th annual “What’s Up Down South” Economic Summit last week, a topic that may not always be associated with the economy yet is no less important also was discussed – water.

Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, discusses water’s impact on the local economy at the What’s Up Down South Economic Summit in St. George, Utah, Jan. 11, 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“Water sustains all,” Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said at the beginning of his presentation at the summit titled, “The Economic Value of Water.”

Renstrom was quoting ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus as he recounted how water use and development in Washington County have helped the community grow and prosper. It is also the one commodity in the county that can’t be shipped in, he said, so proper management of the county’s sole water source – the Virgin River basin – is key, especially in the face of continuing growth and demand.

“We’ve squeezed that little river really, really hard,” Renstrom said and emphasized that water availability is one of the foundations on which local economic growth is built.

Remove that foundation and a large portion of the economy – namely construction which accounts for 30% of it – starts to collapse.

The resulting economic impact would stretch beyond the construction industry as a ripple effect would hit various businesses previously supported by construction workers who would be left unemployed. This could lead to a loss in overall economic opportunity and prompt young families and young adults to move elsewhere to find work.

Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, discusses water’s impact on the local economy at the What’s Up Down South Economic Summit in St. George, Utah, Jan. 11, 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Something like that could have happened around 10 years ago if not for water projects like Sand Hollow Reservoir, Renstrom said. Because of that body of water and others maintained by the water district, the county has been able to get through some very dry years.

“I’d much more rather deal with a problem of growth than loss,” Renstrom said.

Unfortunately, the current winter is leading into what may be “a very dry year” if nothing changes in the next few months, Renstrom said. While last year at this time snowpack was noted at over 200% of normal in southwest Utah, this year it currently sits at 53% of normal.

As of Wednesday, that number was at 55% of normal for the region.

Both Sand Hollow and Quail Creek reservoirs are often credited by water managers with providing a stable foundation for the growth of the county’s population and economy.

If there is anything that can stop growth in the county, it would be a lack of available water, Renstrom repeated. He further said it’s the district’s job to plan for growth and not stunt it.

The challenges of growth, as well as issues brought on by the ongoing drought that has gripped the West for over 20 years, Renstrom said the water district has established a 20-year plan that he and other water managers believe can help sustain and conserve the county’s water supply.

This file photo shows a calm day at Sand Hollow Reservoir. The reservoir is credited with sustaining Washington County’s growth over the last 20 years, Hurricane, Utah, Jan. 25, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

However, that plan – which is now a 19-year plan due to it being introduced last year – depends on several factors and variables to succeed. Among those variables is getting all parties involved, such as the municipalities the water district serves, to observe all of the elements of the plan.

“One city could blow this plan up,” said Renstrom, yet added he was nonetheless excited about the plan.

Two notable parts of the plan Renstrom outlined involve ongoing water conservation efforts and creating a regional water reuse system.

Active conservation initiatives outlined in the 20-year plan include local municipalities implementing water-efficient construction and landscaping requirements for new construction. In addition, property owners can apply for rebates from the water district by replacing “non-functional” grass with desert-friendly alternatives.

“We will come and pay you to rip that grass out,” Renstrom said of the latter initiative officially called the Water Efficient Landscape Program, which pays property owners $2 per every square foot of turf they replace with water-efficient landscaping, also known as xeriscape.

This file photo shows an example of xeriscaping that area residents can find at the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s Red Cliffs Desert Garden, St. George, Utah, Feb. 15, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Since the start of that program in December 2022, over 1 million square feet of turf has been replaced with nearly $2 million paid out by the water district. Renstrom added that water conserved through this process can be shifted to other needs.

“It’s water we can instantly take and put somewhere else in the system,” he said.

As for the regional water reuse project, this will allow wastewater to be treated for outdoor watering and agricultural irrigation. As an example, Renstrom said the water from Gunlock Reservoir currently used by area farmers could be swapped out for retreated reuse water. That would help conserve more of the drinking-quality water from Gunlock for the county once implemented.

Looking to the future, Renstrom said the 20-year plan will need to be updated periodically to adapt to new developments that arise along the way.

“We’ve got to continuously look at those variables and adjust them as we move forward,” he said.

In this file photo, Quail Creek Reservoir experiences abundant water levels thanks to last winter’s heavy snowpack and a wet monsoon season in southwest Utah, Quail Creek State Park, Utah, Oct. 5, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

There is also the question of the Lake Powell Pipeline and its current status.

While environmental groups recently asserted that local managers said the project was no longer needed due to the 20-year plan, Renstrom and other officials say the project is still in the works but is not a primary focus, for now, due to various factors. Instead, the water district’s focus is on how to best sustain and grow the local water supply.

“It’s not off the list one bit,” Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist said of the pipeline project. “It is still being worked on, but we’ve got neighboring states and committees that have to work through some federal issues.”

While there may be a day when there is no more water in the county for growth, the commissioner said current conservation measures employed by the water district and others are creating future years of water availability.

“We can elongate the duration of the water we use” through conservation and reuse, Almquist said.

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