Editorial: Utah water districts’ plan needs to account for climate change

First Published      Last Updated Mar 04 2015 01:45 pm

Utah water plan is too optimistic.

Despite the growing research that less rain and snow will fall here in the coming decades, the people planning Utah's water future have not adjusted their models.

A recent study from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies has offered a stark prediction: If the current rates of human-generated emissions continues, there is an 80 percent chance of a 30- to 35-year megadrought in the American southwest. "We will still have natural variability, but happening with a much drier baseline," the study's lead author said. This comes on top of various other predictions that climate change will make Utah a hotter, drier place.

Water development, of course, is what Mormon pioneers did so well. Bringing their farming sense to the basin-and-range land they settled, they built an extensive system of irrigation canals that, as Brigham Young intended, made the desert bloom. Utah continues to prosper from their foresight.

In the last century, Utah has grown less agrarian and more urban. Now, some 85 percent of Utahns get their water from four large providers: Jordan Valley, Weber Basin, Central Utah and Washington County water conservancy districts.

At the behest of Gov. Gary Herbert, the directors of those water districts have mapped out a water plan for the next 45 years called "Prepare60" (as in "2060"). The plan anticipates that Utah will double its population and will need another $33 billion to both replace old water infrastructure and develop new infrastructure. This plan anticipates the need to construct a half dozen dams on the Bear River drainage in northern Utah and the $1 billion pipeline from Lake Powell to the St. George area. And even then, the Utahns of 2060 will need per-capita consumption to be 25 percent below current levels. (Utahns are among the top water consumers in the nation.)

Which brings us back to megadrought. Prepare60, which the water districts view as the ultimate blueprint, does not predict any drop in average precipitation over the next 45 years. None. The plan anticipates drought years, but it does not factor in any downward trend. If such a trend occurs, Utahns could build all those water projects, cut their consumption by one-fourth and still come up far short.

So Utah needs a water plan that accepts the probability of climate change, and that means accounting for some decline in precipitation and factoring in a more aggressive reduction in water use, particularly outdoor use. We also need to accept that population growth and precipitation may be on a crash course in our state. When it comes to megadrought, we need to pull our heads out of the sand.