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The City Journals

Voluntary action by residents helps mitigate drought impact

Sep 09, 2021 10:15AM ● By Zak Sonntag

Katrin Mead proudly promotes a xeriscape aesthetic. (Zak Sonntag/ City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

Oven-like temperatures and an implacable drought continue to raise the bar on the intensities of summer. Precipitation is missing in action, and the heat appears hell-bent on outdoing itself—setting a slew of new records, as if the old ones weren’t high enough.

With no end in sight to the region-wide drought, governments and private citizens are taking action to conserve water, which you’ll have noticed by the trending cheetah-print lawns in both neighborhoods and city parks. 

These efforts, according to water experts, are working, allowing consumers to avoid compulsory rationing—for now. Nonetheless, the drought’s scary persistence, in concert with a changing climate that’s pushing the scales upward, is causing civil servants and water experts to seriously consider the need for fundamental change in water policy throughout the state.

“We’ve concluded that the current practices of landscaping and water-usage in our service area is unsustainable. Pure and simple,” explained Alan Packard, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy (JVWC), the Salt Lake Valley’s largest wholesale water supplier and provider for some Holladay households, speaking at a Holladay council meeting in August.

“There is urgency this year, but we are seeking to make conservation a priority to create a durable reduction in water use looking 50 years into the future,” said Packard, who cited population growth and increasing temperatures as central concerns.

Jordan Valley is moving full-steam ahead on a series of initiatives to achieve reductions. And though its water-reduction agenda was snagged by a state law that prevents cities and water districts from requiring stricter water standards than those established by the International Plumbing Code, it’s pressing on with a popular menu of incentives that offer consumers water saving rebates, free xeriscape consultations and relandscaping grants that encourage property owners to “localize” their landscapes. 

“Our conservation team has been run ragged with consultation requests,” Packard said.

But there is a problem facing Holladay residents hoping to participate in the incentives because most households in the city are supplied from different entities, and not all offer conservation incentives. JVWC services only a small percentage of residential customers in Holladay.

“I called in for a conservation consultation, and I was told I wasn’t eligible,” said Councilmember Drew Quinn during the council meeting.

Households in Holladay receive water from three separate entities; along with Jordan Valley, residents are also supplied by Holliday Water and the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake. The diversity is uncommon for a municipality of Holladay’s size, and though it may have advantages it also makes a coherent, city-wide water policy difficult.

“We don’t have the size and capital to do big incentive programs. But we always support the conservation messaging from the state, and we try to communicate to our customers the importance of this precious resource,” said Darren Shephard, manager of Holliday Water Co., who provides 4,000 water connections to mostly residential patrons in the city, amounting to around a quarter of the municipality’s water market.  

Holliday Water Company offers a unique share-holder model of water distribution. Residents within its service area are required to buy a company share, which entitles them to 60,000 gallons a year. The shareholder model allows the company to deliver water at a lower rate than other suppliers on the Wasatch Front. But as a smaller entity, it also lacks the wealth to push programs like those offered by Jordan Valley. Also, because the company’s boundaries are fixed within mostly built-out cities, the same need to conserve isn’t there.

“Larger water companies working to keep water down are serving growing areas, and we’re not in that same situation. Our boundaries have been established for decades. Also [conservation] incentives require money, which we’d need to collect from our customers,” said Darren Shephard. “We hope our customers view their consumption with Holliday Water differently because of the shared-interest model, and we think they do because many conserve so well they only use the amount within the minimum bill charge.” 

The lion’s share of distribution is handled by the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy (MWD).

The MWD is the oldest water supply district west of the Mississippi River, so it’s dealt with droughts before and has a paradigm for coping, including the recently implemented Stage 2 water shortage contingency response. In Stage 2, most actions remain voluntary, except as it relates to municipalities who are required to stay beneath a designated watering budget.

In addition to curtailing lawn watering at city parks as a part of Stage 2 requirements, Holladay City is implementing xeriscape principles in one of its large infrastructure projects, the 3900 South road revamp, which will have drought-resistant crops rather than turfgrass on its parking strip, a decision with large water savings over time.

“This is a good example to our citizens because it shows that something can look good without taking much water. The city will need to water the strip during its first year, but once those drought resistant grasses and plants get established there’s no more water needs from the city. I think it sets a good example to our citizens to show how something can look good but not take much water,” said Quinn, who represents the district abutting 3900 South. “There are many things to do, and we’ve got to face this, so hopefully everyone will look around their yards and around their houses and make a few changes.” 


Many residents are pursuing conservation by their own accord. Katrin and Lincoln Mead, 23-year residents, are long-time advocates of the xeriscape aesthetic.

“We’ve torn out almost all of our grass. I just don’t like it. Every week a broken sprinkler, and $300 watering bills in the summer. The bottom line is traditional grass lawns are not sustainable,” said Katrin Mead, standing in a bed of wild sunflowers where lawn used to be. “When I moved into this home 20 years ago, we were in a drought, and I honestly don’t know that it’s ever really ended. I think you’ll either do [sustainable landscaping] now, or you’ll do it later when they make you.”

The Mead’s standout in a neighborhood of classic suburban turfgrass. Ten-foot-tall wild sunflowers bend under the weight of fat, yellow heads. Bumble bees flicker lazily around the pollen-rich garden, where native sage, lavender, and ornamental grasses stand amidst dry river-rock features. 

“Not all of our neighbors love it. Once the water company came out to ask if something wasn’t working, because they said, ‘You’re the clients that don’t use any water!’” Katrin said, chuckling. 

Mead also collects rainwater through a French drain that distributes rooftop water to the garden, along with a rain-barrel collector which they use to water the vegetable garden. 

Other Holladay residents have taken to using domestic “grey-water,” like bath and dishwater, for garden growing, hauling buckets from the house out to the yard by hand. The efforts capture the sense of social responsibility and resourcefulness that Holladay communities pride themselves for.  

“I hate to put it this way, but look at the science—Utah is the second driest state in the U.S. behind New Mexico. We need to change our approach. It’s that simple,” Mead said.