Inaugural summit focuses on water–energy nexus



Attendees gather in North Salt Lake for the first annual Water & Energy Nexus Summit on Jan. 22, 2015.

The Water & Energy Nexus Summit, the first event of its kind in Utah, attracted over 200 attendees on January 22.

Water and energy are inextricably related in what is called the water–energy nexus (or energy–water nexus). Water is needed to produce energy, and energy is needed to supply water. The summit, sponsored by the Rural Water Association of Utah and the Utah Office of Energy Development, addressed these nexus relationships in the context of public water systems.

Several groups have recognized the importance of Utah’s water–energy nexus and are working to better understand it. A 2012 report by the Division of Water Resources was the first major effort. In 2014 the Department of Environmental Quality compiled case studies of water systems that have made significant energy efficiency improvements. Last fall, the Division of Drinking Water developed a handbook to help water systems operate more efficiently. Local engineers are pioneering new methods to optimize water systems for performance, efficiency, and water quality. A team of BYU students is currently studying the energy intensities of water systems throughout the state, which until now have not been well quantified.

Save Energy, Save Water, Save Money

Dale Pierson and Paul Fulgham of Rural Water opened the meeting. Water systems are major energy consumers, they told the crowd gathered at the Utah Local Governments Trust in North Salt Lake. “If we’re pumping water, energy is probably our number-one cost,” Fulgham said.

Paul Lindhardt of Logan City and Steve Jones of Hansen, Allen & Luce explained how Logan’s water system was able to provide better service while cutting costs through energy efficiency and other measures. Logan identified inefficiencies and undertook targeted projects to address them. In 2014, Logan’s water system reduced energy costs by 32% (a savings of $140,000), water use by 17%, and pipe breaks by 40% compared with 2013. Lindhardt said that many water system projects are actually “reactionary” to fundamental problems. Proper engineering insight, including energy considerations, “focused the project in the right direction,” he said. Jones outlined common actions to optimize water systems such as more fully utilizing storage and reconfiguring pressure zones to avoid unnecessary transmission and extreme pressures. He said there are always barriers to such changes, such as risk and funding, but “Logan, to their credit, overcame all of them.”

Growing population, limited water resources, and growing energy demands all converge to create water–energy challenges, said Laura Nelson, director of the Office of Energy Development. She explained the role of water in sustaining Utah’s energy future, urging that “we need clear science and clear data” to better understand the problems. Referring to the state’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Plan, Nelson discussed the potential energy savings in the water industry. “Energy efficiency is a low-cost way to meet demand,” she said. “A watt saved is worth more than a watt generated.”

Doug Evans, energy manager for Mountain Regional Water Special Service District, shared ideas for operational changes that will help water systems save on energy costs. Mountain Regional is one of the most water-intensive systems in the state, having to lift water from Rockport Reservoir and pump it over 3,000 vertical feet to some users. Still, his district has cut $300,000 out of its annual operating budget as a result of energy savings, and still has room for improvement. Ultimately, Evans aims to run the system for less than half of the cost he did just a few years ago. One suggestion was to establish punitive water rates to discourage excessive consumption and help conserve water supplies. “It’s been painful,” he said, referring to Mountain Regional’s effort to wean users from the state average of near 250 gallons per person per day and reduce their demand to only 90 gallons per person per day. Water loss is also a major expense for systems, Evans said. Some systems can lose as much as half of their water to leaks, unmetered connections, and other unaccounted uses. While a zero-loss system is nearly impossible, Evans suggested that water suppliers aim for losses of 15% or less.

Eric Millis, director of the Division of Water Resources, highlighted conservation practices. Agricultural irrigation accounts for 70%–80% of water use statewide. As Utah grows and land develops, some of that use will be converted to public supply. “The big increase will be in municipal and industrial water use,” Millis said. “Water conservation should be a long-term ethic.” Millis oversees the division’s board that requires public water systems to submit a water conservation plan and update it every five years. “What does a good conservation plan look like?” he asked. “One that gets used.”

Wastewater reuse is one possible “new” water supply, said Walt Baker, director of the Division of Water Quality. Utah currently reuses about 5% of its wastewater in non-potable applications; other states like California and Florida reuse much more. A diverse water portfolio reduces risk and applicability. “Reuse needs to be another element of diversification to manage water resources,” Baker said. He mentioned several barriers to reuse, such as its effect on downstream water rights and the cost of moving reclaimed water to its eventual use.

Ken Bousfield, director of the Division of Drinking Water, introduced the division’s new energy savings handbook for water systems. The handbook explains energy awareness, energy audits, and funding opportunities. “For environmental reasons, powers costs are going to rise,” he said. “There is potential for nearly every system to save energy and save money.”

Legislative Outlook

Several regulatory and legislative issues were discussed during the summit. U.S. Senator Mike Lee, who addressed the group via video, contended that “water-related issues are only going to become more important to our economy and in the lives of Utahns.” Concerned about federal agencies imposing regulatory costs on states, Lee argued that the best water policy is “unique to each state” and that Utah should work to retain as much control as possible.

Like Lee, State Senator Margaret Dayton said she is “very uncomfortable with federal overreach” on many issues, including water. She was referring to a recent proposal that would allow the U.S. Forest Service to control groundwater that originates on, passes through, or is adjacent to Forest Service lands. Dayton, who co-chairs the State Water Development Commission, declared that such federal “mischief” is unconstitutional since water belongs exclusively to the states.

Other members of Utah’s legislature—Kevin VanTassell, Scott Jenkins, Ken Ivory, and Lowry Snow—led a discussion of recent or upcoming legislation that affects Utah’s water and energy. Jenkins touched on infrastructure funding and stressed the importance of replenishing the state’s revolving loan fund for water systems, citing the 1,400 projects that have been completed since the fund began. Jenkins pointed to the $33 billion price tag to sustain Utah’s water needs through 2060 and said, “You should be setting money aside.”

Ivory focused on public lands, showing how two-thirds of Utah’s land is federally owned, making it difficult for the state and local users to manage watersheds. VanTassell highlighted the need to maintain irrigation return flows to sustain in-stream and downstream uses. Snow discussed changes to water right administration proposed in House Bill 25.

State engineer Kent Jones clarified Utah water law regarding conservation and forfeiture—the so called “use it or lose it” statute. While many water users, particularly in agriculture, would like to conserve, they are concerned about their water rights then being subject to partial “forfeiture for nonuse” after seven years. Conversely, others’ rights may be impaired if upstream users who start conserving water do not discharge sufficient return flow to streams and rivers. Jones recommended that irrigators divert the full amount every few years to maintain their rights, and that users consider downstream rights before implementing conservation measures that might affect return flows.


Jim Ogsbury

Jim Ogsbury introduced Western Governors’ Association Drought Forum, a framework for states to share best practices for drought management. While the West is rich in natural beauty and natural resources, he said, the “flipside” is its “acute vulnerability to drought and wildfire,” and while water was once an afterthought in business and community planning, it is now “front and center.” Droughts, like the one persisting in California, are the new normal. “We can’t rely on the historical record and expect median flows every year,” he warned. Over the next few months the forum will offer webinars, case studies, an online resource library, and workshops to address drought challenges in the West. A collaborative forum is necessary, Ogsbury said, since “drought has no respect for state boundaries.” The forum will release a final report in June.

A Vision for the Future

Alan Matheson, the governor’s environmental advisor, gave the keynote address. “To be successful, a state needs a comprehensive water plan,” he said. Matheson spoke of “billions of dollars in savings to the state” due to previous planning efforts and urged the audience to continue with cooperative, forward-looking strategies.

He also encouraged attendees to participate in Envision Utah’s online, interactive, game-like survey in which users choose how Utah should grow. The effort, Matheson said, is unique: No other state is seeking this kind of input from its citizens to shape its future. The survey educates participants about several nexus issues such as air quality, economy, water, and energy, and at the same time collects data about what choices users make and which issues matter most to Utahns. Water currently tops the list, he said.

To underscore the debt we owe to our forbearers and the obligation we have to future generations, Matheson concluded with the poem “The Bridge Builder” by Will Allen Dromgoole, which he recited from memory:

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”

Robert B. Sowby

Robert B. Sowby is a water resources engineer at Hansen, Allen & Luce. A graduate of BYU, MIT, and the U, he has contributed to over 100 civil, water, and environmental projects throughout North America.

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