Lisa Rutherford lives in Ivins, Utah, just outside of Saint George, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in America. Lisa spent two decades working for the oil industry in Alaska and is one of the founding board members and current advisors for Conserve Southwest Utah.
We talked about water resources, smart growth, and resisting the ever-present temptation to consume.
“I am what I consider a reformed oil company employee. Although I was very proud of the product that I helped to produce during my time with the oil company, after I retired in 2000, I started learning about other issues. I started learning about climate change and the problems that fossil fuels had created. And the more I learned, the more concerned I got and the more I got interested in learning about how we’re going to resolve this problem.
I was concerned with growth issues in Southern Utah, because it was just growing leaps and bounds. In fact, some national articles called it cancerous growth because it was growing so fast. And so I joined a small group of concerned citizens that started what is now called Conserve Southwest Utah. And I’ve been working with them since 2006 in one capacity or another. I’ve been on the board. Now I’m an advisor and trying to put a different slant on the discussion when it comes to public lands and water in this county.
This state—next to Nevada—has the most public land of any state. And that’s a real thorn in the side of our officials who want that public land to develop. Our organization’s position, and the reason we were started in 2006 was because [there was] a bill to move about 25,000 acres of public land out of the public domain into Washington County, which would’ve just fueled growth even more. And that same bill had provisions for what became the Lake Powell pipeline idea, of moving water from Lake Powell to our area, which again, would just exacerbate growth.
It’s not answering the growth challenges, it’s adding to the growth challenges. And so our mission was to stop that bill or amend that bill and challenge the idea of going 140 miles to get water for an area that used far more water than any other desert community.
In 2000, there’s a water report that shows that this county was using about 400 gallons per capita per day. That’s a tremendous amount of water. And we’re down to about 271 gallons per capita per day, but it’s still far too much for an area in an arid desert, which is becoming more arid.
Right now, the county and the cities and towns are reviewing their water ordinances. The county just reviewed theirs and have made some changes. And our little town of Ivins took that county ordinance and reviewed it and has made some modifications for our city. And so that’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough because the ordinances still allow for grass in new development and a significant amount of grass. The county ordinance limits it to 2000 square feet of grass. Our ordinance limits it to about 1500, if I’m correct. They haven’t finalized the ordinance yet.
But you see, when I moved into this home, which is on a half acre lot and had grass in the front, and then we added grass in the back, that amount of lawn was less than what the new ordinance is saying would be allowed on this lot. So you have to question, are we moving forward? I don’t think so. I think that they’re dealing with the pressure of developers, the pressure of people who want lawns for whatever reason. We’re still allowing water features. We’re still allowing misting systems. And although a city council member might argue that misting systems don’t use much water, when we get to 500,000 people as is predicted by 2050, just a little bit adds up to a lot. And so they need to be nipping this in the bud.
I’ve listened to council members say, ‘Well, people want water features because they like the sound. It makes them feel more comfortable in the heat.’ And to that, I would say, well, if it’s too hot, maybe they should go inside. We don’t have a swimming pool. We don’t have a water feature. We don’t have a misting system. And yet we’re quite happy and quite comfortable and quite content to acknowledge that we live in the desert and maybe these things aren’t really what we should be doing.
I was raised in Albuquerque. And Albuquerque uses about 130 gallons per capita per day. My family lives there still. My sister has a nice home with grass, lots of trees. And there are lots of areas with lots of grass and trees, but generally Albuquerque has pretty much a desert landscape. They do have a lot of trees. When you drive into Albuquerque from the west, it’s very green, but that’s mostly because of the trees, which are much better for using less water, less transpiration, more keeping the heat down. It’s not the grass that does that. It’s the trees.
The fact is that many of the people in New Mexico have adopted this more water wise way of dealing with things. Shouldn’t we try to be doing better? Looking at the amount of grass that is still being put down? According to these new ordinances, it will still continue to be put down. You’ve got to ask yourself, do you really need that in a drought stricken place? In my opinion, the officials are not doing new residents any favor by taking them down that grass path. If this gets worse, and they’re talking about the aridification of the west and the flows in the Colorado River continuing to go down, water prices will probably start going up.
We have the cheapest water anywhere here in Utah. Our water is very cheap, hence it’s overused. What you don’t pay for you don’t value. And so seems to me that officials would be doing new residents more of a favor by restricting lawns, doing away with any in the front yard, some in the backyard, maybe for recreation with kids and things like that. And have them put in desert landscaping now so that they don’t years down the road go, ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t afford this water. We need to put in desert landscaping.’
Smart growth is something we’ve been pushing ever since that 2006 bill. Officials saw that there was a headwind building already. So they decided to try to get ahead of that by putting together what was called Vision Dixie. And Vision Dixie was a half-million dollar effort to get the citizens of Washington County together in small groups that were organized by Envision Utah, which is a growth development organization here. They had these groups take maps of the county and give them a certain population. They would mark where they wanted growth, where they wanted this, where they wanted that. Try to decide where to put all those people and much to the consternation of the officials, it became clear that people were not in favor of getting more public land and growing more
They wanted growth by growing in, not out. Doing away with some of these big acre lots on the outskirts, expanding the transportation network and all of these needs that go into growth. So that was finished, but never really implemented.
There have been some efforts. Downtown St. George has been growing up more. Now they’ve got some nice high rises down there that have apartments or condos above businesses and this type of thing, which is an idea that smart growth promotes, but generally it’s still just sort of spread out. And I don’t think that the smart growth idea has really taken off here the way it should.
Here in Ivins we have a lot of multifamily housing that is going on and Santa Clara, if you drive around the area, you’ll see a lot of bigger structures that are obviously not single family. But a lot of the people don’t really want a lot of these high density areas popping up along that highway. You get that ‘not in my backyard’ idea even though they know intellectually that we need housing like that because Utah generally, and our area specifically, has a huge problem with affordable housing. It’s just impossible for the service industry people to be able to find affordable housing around here.
We’ve got all these retirees who bring money here, but they need services. How are you going to have those services if you can’t provide the housing for the people who are providing those services?”
“I am concerned that they’re not really getting on top of this water issue as much as they should. For instance, when you drove up Snow Canyon Parkway, you passed that big development going in on the south side of the road that’s going to be a golf course. That lava field. When I was on the sensitive lands committee for Ivins, that was one of the areas we had to review because lava fields are considered sensitive land here. The property was owned and so we had to review that and just make sure that they were developing it per the guidelines of the sensitive lands ordinance, which meant they could only disturb a certain amount of the lava fields to put that golf course and all the amenities in.
So that’s a 278-acre development that they’re putting in. One of the selling points that the developer made at the Ivins meeting was that this will bring 800,000 people a year to Ivins.
I don’t know about how that struck you when I said 800,000 people, but I was just appalled to think that that would be a good thing for our little community. I mean, the impact on our roads, the impact on Snow Canyon State Park, which is already overrun. Weekends can just be a nightmare out there. You’ve got people lined up all up and down the road, outside the park itself. That park was actually part of the original red cliffs desert reserve, so it’s tortoise habitat.
They’ve made some concessions on building parking into what is considered tortoise habitat to accommodate all these visitors that they’re trying to squeeze in there. So, that really concerns me, and in addition to that, the water that they’re going to use. 278 acres, 200 of that is golf course area. In the new draft water ordinance for these resorts, it says that they can only use 8% of the land for lawn, but the golf course is exempted. Plus they’re going to have water features, they’re going to have a lake for that. That development was approved before this ordinance even came under consideration. So they sort of slipped in there by the hair of their chinny chin chin.
In Zion National Park, the [visitation] numbers have just gone up tremendously, especially during the pandemic. When you see pictures, the lines to get up to Angels Landing—which is one of the big hikes there—it’s just shoulder to shoulder people trying to get up this thing. I mean, how much fun is that?
I’ve never been a crowd person myself. But it seems to me that humans just like being around humans. Most of them don’t mind being inconvenienced by being crowded up against humans. In fact, they like it. So I don’t know how we’re gonna deal with this.
It bothers me a lot, the amount of graffiti that we’ve seen in Zion park. Why would you come to see a place this beautiful and then destroy it? What kind of mentality is that? It’s putting a tremendous burden on our park personnel who are having to go out and scrub those rocks to clean them up. And the park service funding has been diminished over the last 10 or so years drastically. They’ve got more visitors, less money. How do you manage that?
I’m a proponent of a reservation system, because I think that gives everybody a chance to see the parks within reason. Some way of managing it better than they are. Because if you go to Springdale now during the high visitation season, cars are lined up all the way through Springdale, out of the city, along the road, you just can’t continue with that. It’s going to ruin that park.”
“This last couple of years has been difficult with the pandemic, but it’s also been challenging here because of the water situation. The drought has just gotten worse and worse over the last couple years. I keep wondering about the people…like you said, people in Minnesota, they want to get away from the winter and come down here. Same thing with the Salt Lake people. A lot of the growth down here is from Northern Utah coming down now because people can work remotely.
Do we have the resources to support that now that we’re scrambling to try to figure out how to deal with this water issue? I think we have the water to support growth for a considerable amount of time. The district says that they can provide almost a hundred thousand acre feet of water without the Lake Powell pipeline. We’re using about 70,000 acre feet per year now. These are sort of older numbers. It takes the state and all of these folks a couple of years to update their numbers. In fact, when I go out on the state’s website to look at what the latest municipal industrial water use numbers are, they’re 2019, right? It’s 2022. So that’s pretty much behind the times there, but it looks to me that if we got our water use down to about 170 or 180 gallons per capita per day—which is still quite a bit of water—that we could probably grow for several more decades and still not be looking at anything dire because that’s still a lot of water. When you look at Albuquerque using 125 to 130 gallons per capita per day, and you look at how we’re using the water now…
We’re not gonna stop the growth. That would be a fool’s errand on my part. It’s just, how are we going to manage it better? And the people who are thinking of coming here, maybe you should start looking at maybe some other options. Surely there have to be some other places that are nice and not as cold, but have more water. You might want to consider. It’s getting less and less enjoyable to live here. We have good medical facilities that have come about because of all the growth. We’ve got a nice arts community. There are the positives that come with growth. There are plenty of negatives too.
I think that we each have to look in our hearts and we need to realize that this planet has given us much and asked very little. And yet we put demands on it all the time. Give me this. Let me drill here. Let me mine here. Let me build here. Let me pave that over with little consideration for the creatures, the microbes, everything that we’re building on top of or digging up.
I know that humans want to enjoy life as much as they can during their brief time on this earth. But do we have to do it in a way that destroys at the same time? And there are a lot of complexities out there. You know, you look at the renewable issue, there are problems with renewables. They use energy to make renewables. So they’re very complex issues. And I get that. None of this is simple.
So I guess what it comes down to is that each person has to at least take the time to try to look at the facts, give it some careful consideration and think about what they want to leave. I mean, it almost comes down to a faith. Conserving, honoring this earth, even if you don’t know it’s going to do any good, it’s sort of like believing in God. Really none of us knows whether there really is a God, but having that faith, that what you’re doing, the way you’re living your life will get you where you want to go. That to me is what being a good steward of the earth is all about. Just believing that your actions combined with the actions of the millions of people on this planet who are trying to do the right thing in spite of the forces and the headwinds that they face, that it’ll help.
There was a debate on NPR the other day that Paul and I were listening to. It was renewables versus nuclear and it was really an interesting debate. But at the end of the debate, after all the facts were presented on both sides, the renewable debate came out ahead. Nuclear just did not make the sense that they like to make you think it makes. And the point that really bothered me during that, was that the person who was supporting the nuclear side said that we don’t want tell people not to use energy. People want to use energy and they want to use a lot of energy. And I’m thinking to myself, why don’t we want to tell people not to use so much energy? To me, that’s the crux of the matter. Because we waste so much, whether it’s turning the air conditioning down to a temperature that requires you to put on a sweater. Or turning the heat up in your house, instead of putting on your sweatshirt to become comfortable or buying the biggest vehicle you can that’s using more fuel than it should use. When you turn on a light, you need to multiply that light by 10, because that’s the amount of energy that gets consumed to get you that light. It’s not just that light bulb. It’s a lot of other factors that you need to consider.
[There’s] the idea that technology is always going to save us. But what I see is that technology in many ways is creating many of our problems. You look at cryptocurrency….I know people want to get away from the centralized banking and all of that control, but what are we going to be looking at with these huge banks of servers that are needed to manage all of that electronic information? We can’t keep thinking that technology is going to always be the answer to our problem. All the technology that we have, our computers, our cell phones, that all comes from materials. We can’t keep buying the latest and greatest.
I was raised in a very conservative Republican home in New Mexico. My dad was a city commissioner when I was growing up, my mom was very active in Republican politics. And yet my dad would say, turn the water off. Don’t waste water. Close the door. We’re not heating the outside. We’re not cooling the outside. Turn the lights off, you’re not in the room.
That was a conservative Republican. Now, it probably came down to dollars and cents for him. Sure. But those things were basically being responsible.
[People] just need to be more conscious of what they’re doing. Give things some thought when you are consuming, give some thought to, do you really need that? My mom always used to tell the story when I was growing up about some friends, that every time the TV would come on and a commercial would come on, the whole family would say, ‘We don’t need that!’ It was their mantra. ‘We don’t need that.’ That was their mantra for dealing with the advertising forces that were coming at them, which we’ve all become victims of.
If you are consuming, give some thought to why you’re consuming. Are you doing it to fill some void in your life? If so, figure out what that void is all about and maybe fill it with something else that is not as impactful on this world and the resources.”
-Do you see environmental issues differently today than you did when you were younger?
-Does your community view water with a sense of scarcity or abundance?
-Does resource use calculate into your idea of growth?
-If there is an adversarial relationship between development and protection of open spaces, how do we find common ground?
-Are there ways that you try to conserve resources in your daily life?
-Lisa suggests that small acts, multiplied times millions of people, can make a significant difference. Are you hopeful that this is possible?
-When have you found yourself consuming carelessly?
-How do we find the correct balance of growth and conservation?