LEEDS, Utah — A century after her grandfather arrived to eke a living out of the hot, red dirt here, Susan Savage still structures her life around the groundwater. Twice daily, she checks the well her family’s pasturelands, orchards and animals depend on, watching its level drop in recent years amid punishing drought.
These days, she and some others in this rural town of fewer than 1,000 people are casting a wary eye 15 miles south, where St. George, the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area, is churning out houses — and scrambling to find new water sources to support that boom, including deep underground near here.
St. George and surrounding Washington County, two hours northeast of Las Vegas in Utah’s hottest and driest corner, was once known mostly as the gateway to Zion National Park. Now its stunning landscape is drawing droves of retirees and remote workers from northern Utah and beyond. The county’s population of about 180,000 is expected to more than double by 2050 — even though its single water source, the Virgin River basin, is dwindling as the West remains locked in the worst drought in 1,200 years.
A plan to pipe water from the drying Colorado River remains far off amid objections from other states. The county, which state officials say has a decade before demand outstrips supply, has adopted new water restrictions. It is also building reservoirs and considering reusing wastewater. But as the future grows more tenuous, the county’s primary water provider is now seeking state permission to drill wells far beneath rural reaches, sparking protest from small towns and landowners who fear the region’s breakneck growth will imperil their shallower groundwater.
“This seems to be some level of insanity to me that you continue to allow unabated growth at the same time you’re dealing with this unprecedented drought,” said Don Fawson, president of the Leeds Domestic Water Users Association, which provides drinking water to about 430 households in town. “Rather than trying to find all these sources of water, we ought to be controlling the growth.”
Water disputes have run through the American West since European settlement, but never have the stakes been so high. Cities are swelling as climate change deepens a two-decade drought. The Colorado River, which hydrates 40 million people, is so compromised that federal officials have demanded the states that depend on it, including Utah, devise a plan this month to cut an amount equal to one-third of its annual flow. That has left managers across the region jostling to safeguard their share.
Scarcity has prompted towns in Utah and Colorado to halt building altogether. Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the major regional water wholesaler that wants to drill 18 deep wells, said that is not on the table in St. George. Not yet, at least.
“A lot of people are very nervous about how long this will be going on and what’s going to happen in 10, 15 years, and I can’t give them a straight answer,” Renstrom said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we have a community that has safe, reliable drinking water.”
Concerns about the deep wells are “legitimate,” Renstrom said. But he said state law requires his agency to demonstrate they would not affect shallower aquifers, probably through initial testing.
To some in Leeds and other rural parts of Washington County north of St. George, however, the idea carries both a threat to existing water supply and an unwelcome sign of the march of development.
“We value our small water system and don’t want to see it gobbled up into the larger county water system,” Fawson said.
Water ‘keeps me up at night’
The area’s growth has been dizzying, St. George Mayor Michele Randall said. She expected the city, established in the 1860s by Mormon pioneers deployed by Brigham Young on a failed mission to grow cotton, to calm when COVID hit. Instead, it swelled with pandemic-era pilgrims who decided to stay.
The city is now proposing to hike property taxes to fund dozens of additional police officers and firefighters. But Randall said it is water that “keeps me up at night.” Utah has long pushed for a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell, the massive Colorado River reservoir, to pump water to the St. George region. But given the lake’s plummeting water, Randall said she has no hope for a pipeline in her lifetime. Water saving and storage must be the plan, she said.
Ordinances adopted this month by the St. George City Council include limits on grass at new homes and a ban on ornamental grass at new nonresidential buildings; the district says those measures will save 11 billion gallons of water over a decade, or about a year’s worth of the district’s current annual supply. A fee for high water users and a turf buyback program — for residents who rip out grass — are coming, officials said.
The changes are “baby steps,” Randall said, but there is still pushback from longtime residents worried that their expansive lawns, in a desert that gets nine inches of rain a year, will be eventual targets.
“Their first reaction, I think, is to say: ‘Just stop the growth,’ ” Randall said. “The problem with that is over 30% of our economy is still attached to the building industry in one way or the other. We would kill our economy overnight.”
But, she added: “If the drought continues, we may absolutely be forced to just stop any growth. And then from there, you will have to really crack down on the people who live here currently.”
Environmental groups say the steps are hardly enough. The county, they note, uses far more water per capita and charges far less for water than other Southwest cities that have cut use while growing. Utah generally has lagged other states on conservation, experts say, though the dramatic retreat of the Great Salt Lake and the Colorado River crisis made water a focus of state lawmakers this year.
“They ran a lot of bills and showed that water is on their radar in a way it hadn’t been before,” said Joanna Endter-Wada, a natural resources professor at Utah State University. “And the legislation was good but not enough.”
Water wasn’t on Ed Andrechak’s mind when he and his wife moved two years ago from Philadelphia to Ivins, outside St. George. An article on America’s best places to retire put it on their radar, and the hiking and home prices sealed the deal. But the pace of building in the region astonished Andrechak, who spent his career as an environmental consultant advising oil companies’ on-site cleanup.
Now he volunteers as water program manager for Conserve Southwest Utah, an advocacy group that filed a written protest over the water district’s deep wells application.
“I believe in growth, and you don’t want to be that town in Ohio where the GM plant just closed,” Andrechak said. “We are in the opposite end of the spectrum. There’s a lot of us trying to say, can we just slow this down?”
Kara and Brian Adams, who moved to St. George four years ago from Southern California, aren’t sure they will stay to find out. They replaced their front lawn with rock recently, cutting their water bill by one-third; they couldn’t afford to do the backyard, too. But they worry the sense of urgency in the community doesn’t match climate projections that feel increasingly apocalyptic.
“The one thing that terrifies me is the water issues and my property values going down once no one wants to live in an area with no water and that is 110 degrees in the summer,” said Kara Adams, 32, a social worker who stays home with the couple’s toddler daughter.
Renstrom said he is certain water will continue to flow to all existing houses and those under construction, even with climate change. And for now, property values continue to rise.
On the south end of St. George, the area’s biggest development, Desert Color, embraces water conservation as a brand. A hotel, retail buildings and 11,000 residences — from condos to multimillion-dollar spreads — are underway, 600 of which are already occupied. Lots are mostly small, and lawns are limited in favor of stones and desert plants. That hasn’t deterred buyers, said Rob Behunin, the community’s government affairs consultant.
Its centerpiece is a massive cerulean lagoon, where on a recent 100-degree morning people paddleboarded as construction workers pounded nails in half-built homes nearby. Its brackish water is pumped from a well and recirculated, and it requires less water than a golf course or houses on the same spot would, Behunin said. The water, he said only half-jokingly, could also possibly be treated for drinking if things get truly dire.
“It’s a moral and ethical obligation,” to conserve, he said, “because there isn’t really any more water.”
‘Where’s the water?’
The sprawl still feels distant up Interstate 15 in Leeds, where there is no school and the only grocery store recently closed. But it is looming, Mayor Bill Hoster said.
Hoster said he is not terribly concerned about the county’s deep well-drilling proposal — he works closely with the water district and trusts that the idea is exploratory. Instead, he is focused on intelligently planning growth that seems unstoppable as developers buy land nearby.
“We either grow or we’re going to die,” Hoster said. “But we want to manage that.”
Up the road, Savage lives in the stone house her grandfather built. Quails and jack rabbits skitter across her property, and horses graze on pasture greened by the well’s water. In good years, snowpack from a nearby mountain feeds a spring on the land, but those haven’t come in a long time. The well is now the farmland’s sole water source, and Savage worries about the county’s quest for new water underground.
“That deep water that they are thinking is down there, where is it coming from?” said Savage, who, along with other property owners who share her well, submitted a written protest to the state. “Is it part of what’s feeding our aquifers right now?”
Savage is also aware that agriculture — which uses more water than cities — is coming under increasing scrutiny as water grows more scarce. She and her partners have worked to reduce their usage, including by computerizing the well to manage flows and catch any leaks. But she also sees value in agricultural land in the desert.
“I don’t look at anybody as a villain. I think everybody is trying to figure out what’s going on, how much we can do and how much we can sustain,” Savage said.
But many local leaders, “have felt like you can’t say no to development. And some of us would say, ‘where’s the water?'” Savage said. “Don’t you need to be able to promise people that they won’t turn on their tap and get dust, if not now, then at some point?”