When it comes to water, rainfall and snowfall can seem like a feast or famine commodity. Right now, it’s definitely famine in the western United States.
In March 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that nearly half the country is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions. Its seasonal drought prediction for 2021 is that most of California and all of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico will have droughts that persist.
Provo, Utah, is one of those places and has been working hard to deal with how to manage its precious water resources for the city’s future.
The fourth largest municipality in Utah and located about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City, Provo has experienced population growth that equates to an increased demand for water. Couple that with climate change, and the amount of useable water for the city of 126,000 has declined in recent years. The city provides drinking water to about 17,500 residential, 1,900 commercial, 171 institutional and 17 industrial customers.
So, three years ago, the city started a pilot program to study how the city can recover groundwater and store it for future use. The Provo Aquifer Storage and Recovery Project searches for surface-water sources and ways to move water to aquifers, where it can be stored in anticipation of future drought cycles.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, aquifer storage and recovery is a water resources management technique for actively storing water underground during wet periods for recovery when needed, usually during dry periods. Water storage can be for months or as long as decades.
This intentional water storage technique has been used for hundreds of years but is being further developed and refined as demand for fresh water threatens to exceed supply in many other parts of the world, including the southwestern United States.
According to Dave Decker, Provo’s public works director, Utah is one of the western states that are drought prone. “We flip-flop between adequate and less than adequate rainfall and snowfall. Right now, we’re in a less-than-adequate part of the cycle.”
Less than adequate means “the static water level in the city’s wells has seen steady decline, dropping between 2 and 58 feet over the lives of the respective wells,” states a feasibility report from the Utah DNR Board of Water Resources.
In wetter climates, Decker said rainfall reduces drought conditions, but in places like Utah, Nevada and New Mexico, the winter snowpack is critical to easing drought conditions. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Utah Snow Survey, the winter of 2020-21 saw a snowpack of only 75% to 80% of normal. While that may not seem too terrible, the less than average snowfall was on the heels of the driest summer in the 126 years of rainfall record-keeping.
In other words, Decker said, “Things could get serious pretty fast.”
During the pilot program, Provo has worked with engineers from Utah companies — Barr Engineering and Hansen Allen and Luce — and global company AECOM to study ways for capturing and conserving water. The pilot project has monitored five of the city’s 16 wells. Testing drills dig for water sources and measure how far into the earth they are, and then by pumping the water from the wells, workers can transfer it to local aquifers where it can be stored for later use.
Decker said the results so far have been “quite positive.” Harvesting groundwater will increase the area’s drinking water supply and will make it possible to “bank” water in the underground aquifers where it can stay for years. “It really is like money in the bank since there is more storage volume underground than above.”
The final project will include two pump stations and more than 2 miles of 24-inch ductile pipe to carry water to Rock Canyon, which is east of the city. The project anticipates that 12,000 acre-feet of water will be pumped each year to help recharge the aquifer supplying the city wells.
Without channeling groundwater into the aquifer, the precious resource is “essentially wasted,” he added.
According to Decker, the pilot project has cost $3 million. The permanent phase of the ASR project, which will also include a surface water treatment plant, will cost about $20 million and is being funded by cost sharing among the Utah Board of Water Resources, a loan from the Drinking Water Board, a WaterSMART grant and the city of Provo.
He expects construction on the permanent phase will begin next spring, and the components of the project will be functioning in 2023.
“There is a lot of talk about sustainability with environmental issues. The ASR project is about sustaining water for our future,” Decker said.