Water Rights Sustainability

Revised: September 16, 2010

Meeting the water rights needs of the present,
without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future.

Consideration of the growing demand for our finite supply of water resources, brings all managers, regulators and users to the question of sustainability. How are we able to take advantage of our limited supply in the face of almost infinite demand and balance economic development today with needs of future generations. As water development evolves from agricultural to municipal uses, it shifts from surface water to ground water uses. When using surface waters; when you run out, you stop using. With ground water; when the well runs dry, you dig a deeper well. Initially most groundwater aquifers are perfectly balanced and interconnected, natural systems, that we affect and unbalance the minute we access them. The terms ‘safe yield’ or ‘sustainability’ are used to quantify a groundwater system that is basically in balance. Removal of the non-renewable ground water is sometimes referred to as ‘water mining’ because the water is not being replaced naturally at the rate it is being abstracted.

The Basin/Range composition of the western and northern part of Utah typically has wide alluvial valley aquifers that are recharged by the snowmelt from the mountain streams or through the underlying bedrock. There are other examples of prominent aquifers closer to home, such as the carbonate aquifer that spans Utah and Nevada that is the focus of the latest Las Vegas quest for more water. The groundwater of the eastern and southern part of the state is more bedrock controlled with water flowing in the joints and fractures of the compartmentalized bedrock or thru the complex bedrock itself, if it is porous enough. We do, however, have alluvial aquifers all over the state and we have bedrock aquifers all over the state. The basin and range geography of the western half of the state has for the most part provided opportunity for deep alluvial aquifers to exist in the down-thrust blocks of the north south oriented valleys. Shallower alluvial aquifers are generally found in upland canyon areas. Generally bedrock aquifers are relied upon as one moves to the margins of a basin and range complex. In eastern Utah deep basin and range troughs don’t exist so although some unconsolidated sediments exist they are generally less reliable as groundwater supplies and hence there is a greater emphasis on bedrock aquifer systems

We can utilize and affect these aquifers by taking more water from them in times of drought, or injecting water into it in times of plenty. We can also affect the recharge patterns of aquifers with changes in land use such as irrigation, urbanization, or changes in the natural vegetation. These changes in land use patterns may result in what is termed ‘double resource accounting’ because we can affect both inflow and outflow. Overexploitation of the resource is often difficult to determine because of the time lag involved in achieving equilibrium from varying loading conditions. Tolerable rates of abstraction are also difficult to define and they must be determined on an iterative basis to be relevant, especially in arid, changing climates where recharge episodes can be sporadic and intense. There are other social and economic affects to consider, besides just the water balance, such as the effects on other water users, other states, dependant ecosystems, water quality degradation, salinity concentration, and ground subsidence.

Utah Water Right law encourages beneficial use of water. The Utah Supreme Court, recognizing groundwater users generally tend to confuse access with availability, has adopted a standard of "reasonableness" with regard to interference between groundwater users. Impairment only exists if groundwater is no longer available. Each user is expected to extend reasonable effort to divert groundwater just as a surface water user has a responsibility to develop and maintain diverting works. New water uses may necessitate continued reasonable modifications to the diverting works or pumps. Appropriation of groundwater storage is vastly different in this way than Appropriation of the sometimes limited, but often-renewed surface water, where impairment is forbidden. Groundwater management plans are an important tool to protect the health of the State’s valuable groundwater resources. Plans are formulated and agreed on by all the stakeholders, from the water users to the water regulators, from the public to the politicians and from the economists to the ecologist and focus on the best science available to support management decisions. Wise use, acceptable yield and sustainability are an imperative, not an option if the resource is to remain viable for future generations. This is true with water, energy, air, land, minerals, and all of natural resources.

Click here for ways to conserve that anyone can implement.

Water is a valuable resource, and there are many ways to protect it and use less with minimal impact on daily life. Because we must stretch out water to meet the needs of our growing population, individuals should know basic facts about water:

  • Our bodies are 60% water, it is necessary for life.
  • Although three-quarters of our earth is covered in water, the vast majority is salt water. We only have a limited amount of accessible fresh water.
  • Experts say the same amount that exists today is exactly the same amount that was present during prehistoric times.
  • The average family of four uses about 400 gallons of water per day, enough to fill 6,400 drinking glasses. Stanford University

    Where does our water come from?

    Water moves from various sources through different phases and locations: precipitation, evaporation and condensation. Only 0.3 % is potable freshwater - water for human use. Water is drawn from two general sources: groundwater and surface water. Groundwater is the source of about half of the drinking water in the United States. Groundwater is the result of precipitation. Groundwater is held underneath the surface of the earth in aquifers. USGS

    As we draw near 2011 and the slow economy shows no sign of meaningful recovery any time soon, State budgets will continue to tighten. In addition to water, there are many steps that we can take in the realm of sustainability to stretch our existing budgets:

    As this page grows, there will be an organized storehouse of information and suggestions towards making the Division more resource efficient. These are easy to implement and can make a real difference both in the short and long-term, especially if we stay vigilant.

    There are five primary areas where improvements can be made. Not all are changes an individual can make, some are matters of state policy and a changing mindset rather than immediate tangible action. Each has its own page of information:

  • Recycling - More than just paper and plastic.
  • Appliances, Lighting and Energy - Their small individual power usage adds up over the course of days with dozens of people using them, and we've come a long way since the first spiral-shaped compact fluorescent bulb you may be familiar with.
  • Renewable Energy - Utah has set realistic goals for energy creation and greenhouse gas reduction, the first step is understanding the status quo. COMING SOON.
  • Transportation - Learn and engage in some fuel-saving habits now and benefit more when we inevitably return to $4+ gas.