Utah's 2-Mile Water Walk Promotes Water Value

A Water Walk sponsored by a Southwest Utah water conservancy district highlights week of fun and education around the value of water and treatment.
Utah's 2-Mile Water Walk Promotes Water Value
Plant tours teach participants about every step in the treatment process. Hank Childers, the wastewater plant operations manager, lead this tour.

For the fifth straight year, a warm, dry winter stressed southwest Utah’s water reserves. But it could be worse: While longtime locals call it the worst drought in memory, freshwater still runs from their taps.

That’s why every May, the Washington County Water Conservancy District sponsors an event that highlights the efficiency of its potable water delivery system, but also encourages residents to conserve.

The annual Water Walk caps a week of outreach in St. George, Utah. At The Garden in Tonaquint Park, Mayor Jon Pike leads hundreds of residents on a 2-mile walk — the distance those in the world’s water-stressed communities walk daily for clean water.

“People take clean, drinkable water for granted in this country,” says Ron Thompson, general manager. “The Water Walk lets them walk 2 miles in the shoes of those who struggle every day to provide clean water to their families. The goal is to help put things in perspective.”

Community growth

That perspective is needed because Washington County’s population has grown by more than 800 percent in the last 30 years, to more than 160,000, accelerating demand for water in the desert environment. More than 60 percent of the county’s water is currently used for irrigation; much of this irrigation water is too brackish for other uses, even landscape watering, without costly desalination. In 2010, the county used 320 gallons per person per day (including secondary water), versus a statewide average of 240 gallons, according to a 2015 Utah Division of Water Resources report.

“We obviously have a fairly robust water system, but we’re also in the fifth year of a drought that hasn’t broken yet,” says Thompson. “We feel it’s important that our residents know there will eventually be a breaking point if we don’t cut back and get usage under control. Water is the fundamental ingredient that protects quality of life.”

Week of water

That quality of life is the basis of the district’s Water Week activities. Besides the Water Walk, activities include a Garden Fair with interactive displays, kids’ games, educational booths, prizes, music and refreshments. It’s a family event that presents a panorama of the water industry and proper water practices.

“The fair is a community festival with an educational undertone,” says Thompson. “We’ve done it for seven years, and it’s gotten bigger every year. We get a lot of volunteers and community support.”

Also part of the week are tours of the Quail Creek Water Treatment Plant and the St. George Wastewater Treatment Plant. The tours help visitors understand the water cycle. “The tours have grown in popularity every year,” Thompson says.

“We want people to know there are no secrets when it comes to treating their water. It’s well worth the effort just to hear the feedback when you let people see what’s going on.”

Visitors learn about every step in the process, from collecting raw water at the Quail Creek Dam to discharge of effluent at the wastewater plant.

“People see the effluent we start with at the wastewater plant, and they think that’s what is released to the environment,” says Thompson. “We bring them into the lab to demonstrate the extensive testing we do on potable water and treated wastewater. I think they go away appreciating just how many steps we need to take to provide high-quality drinking water and protect the environment.”

Constant outreach

The district’s outreach programs don’t end with Water Week. Plant tours are available to school and community groups year-round, and employees regularly give school presentations on water conservation. “The tours are extremely popular with home school groups, Boy Scout troops and other youth groups,” says Thompson. “The more informed the public is, the better decisions are ultimately made.”

Thompson says it’s important that the district keep the area’s decision-makers in the loop as well. The area’s ongoing drought conditions mean that long-term planning is paramount.

“Our leadership is very engaged in what we do here,” he says. “They realize that water sustains the economy.”

While Water Week goes back seven years, community outreach goes back more than 30. Thompson says maintaining transparency, celebrating clean water, and highlighting the steps to produce and protect it should be building blocks for every municipal treatment plant’s business model.

“We realize it’s the taxpayers that own these plants,” he says. “All you have to do is look at what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, to realize how outreach is more important today than ever. It’s our duty to make sure the people understand how our plants work.”


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