Mayors of Utah Valley: Water and growth in American Fork
Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo
I have lived in American Fork my whole life, and I consider myself a realist when it comes to growth. I am not looking to help grow our state as much as possible, but I’m also not getting angry when it inevitably comes.
I recognize its more important to play a role in making sure growth happens correctly rather than sit idly by complaining about its existence. I also recognize that my feelings regarding growth have been tempered over the years as I have become educated on the issues; particularly as growth relates to our state’s water resources. I hope to share with you some things I have learned to help debunk common misconceptions with growth and water.
Many Utahns worry there is not enough water for our current and future residents. Those fears are understandable given our current drought conditions. After all, we live in a desert climate and, as such, we should care for every precious drop of water. Some people may think one solution would be to halt all growth. After all, if we only have so much water then why would we allow more people in our state that we now must share that water with?
While at face value that logic makes sense, with a little bit more context we can see some problems if we were to act on that belief. For one thing, historically most of Utah’s growth comes from within, rather than without. That is, historically most of our growth in Utah is from our children growing up and staying rather than from people moving in from other states. To halt growth altogether would be telling your children that when they grow up, they need to not only leave your house, but the state as well. Our children are the best group to carry on our values into the next generation. We need to find places for them here in Utah to help preserve the identity of Utah.
The next misconception is that new homes, especially apartments and condos, are what’s gobbling up our precious water supply. In American Fork people ask me why we are approving more homes if they fill up our roads and compete for our limited water. Well, in addition to planning higher density development closer to main traffic corridors like freeway and frontrunner stations to help mitigate traffic on our roads, American Fork City plans for our water needs as well.
Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo
Many people may not understand the difference between water rights and water availability. Water rights are the purchased right to acquire water for a particular use. For American Fork City, whenever a farmer chooses to annex into the city and sell his property, the developer of that property must turn over to the city the proper amount of water rights to service the residents or businesses of that new development. As the city grows so too does the city’s ability to provide water to our residents. At no point will we have more people in our city than we are allowed to supply water to. This is the case for every city in Utah. The key is making sure we have water availability for everyone.
According to the Utah’s Department of Natures Resources, the largest water users in Utah are not homes and apartments but farms. According to DNR, 75% of annual water use in Utah goes towards agriculture purposes. The Utah Rivers Council estimates as much as 85% of our water consumption goes to agriculture while 15% goes towards municipal and industrial water usage.
Whatever the percent is, it’s clear the largest consumers of water are not residents but farmers. Before you start painting targets on farmers, please recognize we need agriculture, and they too are working on improving wise watering practices. But the misconception that housing is gobbling up our water is not just wrong, it’s the opposite of the truth. Contrary to what some may think, every irrigated field that’s converted to homes or apartments actually reduces Utah’s water consumption rather than increases it.
The last misconception I’d like to clear up deals with is who responsible for “fixing” our drought situation. Most people think we should stop growth and farming before we ask residents to conserve water. As I discussed above ending growth would not solve our water issues. Instead, it would hurt our water conservation and would hinder opportunities for our children to live here as well.
And while farmers make up the largest percent of water use, some homeowners represent a large percent of water misuse. Homeowners over-consume water more than any other group. This is particularly true when you focus on non-essential outdoor water consumption. In American Fork our population has grown by 2.7% annually, or 27% over the last decade. Last year when we asked (not mandated) residents to conserve outdoor watering, we were able to lower our citywide water use by 26% from the previous year.
Courtesy American Fork City
In one year, we were able to reduce water consumption by as much as we have grown in the last 10 years. I feel confident that similar stories exist in cities all throughout Utah. If everyone acts as wise and responsible stewards of our precious water, then there will be enough water for everyone.
I love my city and my state. As I said I have lived here my whole life. I know we can all live here together and have water if we are willing to work together and make smart decisions. We should not sit on the sidelines but get involved and get educated on the issues. Hopefully I have helped you understand that the conversation does not need to be growth “vs” water but should be growth “and” water. If we responsibly manage both resources today, we will have enough water for our future generations tomorrow.