Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Do cities run out of water?

By LineM1FLEReunion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

If you're living in a city, or if you're in any situation where you're not using your land for agriculture, chances are you don't put a great deal of thought into where your water comes from. Generally, when you're buying a home, you're going to have a utility arrangement with the city you're buying it in: they make water come out of your tap when you turn it on, and you send them a certain amount of money every month.

However, if you're looking at buying property with a water source on it, be aware that water rights are transferred separately from land rights. If I had an underground water source on my property, I could theoretically sell my land to Thomas Red, and then sell the water to Alfred Green, his bitter enemy.

As a city-dweller myself, I do not have any water rights, though, and therefore could not sell any. The City of Orem owns my water, and I get it from them through utilities. The Red/Green feud will have to wait.

David Morier (circa 1705-1770) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But do cities run out of water?

The answer to this is somewhat complicated. Usable water sources only replenish at a certain rate (dictated, generally, by nature), and so it stands to reason that eventually we would have so many people in a city that we'd be drinking more water than we were getting from our source. (It's more likely that we're using it to water our crops and livestock, actually, but you take my point.) Further complicating this idea is the fact that water replenishment rates are inconsistent. Utah gets an average of 61.5 million acre feet of water every year. However, after evaporation and plants have taken their greedy share (as well as our neighbor states, who dip their hand in Utah's water pot a little bit) we actually only have 3.3 million available for consumption.

Oh, an acre foot, by the way, is the amount of water it requires to cover an acre of land in a foot of water. One acre of agricultural land uses about four acre feet of water in a year.

The government is charged with water appropriation, which is to say that they express a large amount of control over who gets water rights, and for how much money they get them. Interestingly, Washington and Iron Counties here in Utah have overappropriated water rights due to incorrect estimates about population growth. That has led to a rise in price for water rights in those counties, as well as plans being discussed to divert water from the Colorado River or, more likely, Lake Powell.

Move to Utah! (Picture of Utah taken from Arizona)

 And that's the key right there. Water rights follow the principle of supply and demand. As more water is appropriated, the remaining supply is scarcer, and prices generally increase. There can even be instances where cities will tell builders of new divisions that they must acquire their own water rights, instead of buying them directly from the city. Just the other day I listened to the lament of a potential homebuyer who was ruing that he couldn't find water rights for his new place.

In these cases, it's important to remember how massive the water sources we're talking about are, though. For example, a division builder in Spanish Fork could potentially try to purchase water rights from an owner in Alpine, because there's a massive water source in this part of the Wasatch Front, so they're drawing from the same place.

Seems small, I know, but bear in mind that bird is the size of Rhode Island.
By Tanu842011 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Truthfully, you probably don't need to worry about running out of water to drink anytime soon. If some jerk were able to convince everyone in Utah to run their taps constantly all day (or if said jerk wanted even more devastating results, they'd convince farmers to run their sprinklers all day), well yeah, that would be a problem. If you're looking into acquiring water in Iron or Washington counties, then you will want to keep an eye on the Lake Powel Pipeline idea.

Here in Utah, though, just be responsible with your water usage, and bask in the weird dichotomy that we have one of the highest per-capita water usages in our little neighborhood of states, but are also, in a way, running at a water surplus.

Note: Most of the facts for this article were drawn from this report, which is awesome.


  1. Interesting article. Is it possible to obtain water rights while living in a city? Can people just decide to own a well and dig until they hit something?

  2. You most likely can purchase water rights in a city, although you might not have a reason to do so. It would be very situation-dependent.

    If you just dig into a ground well and start pumping water, you're running the risk of stealing from an established water source! The government controls allocation of water rights, and I'm not sure how they would handle a newly-discovered water-source. Good question!