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Tribune Editorial: Utah water report shows how much we have to learn

First Published      Last Updated Jun 19 2017 05:51 am

It's 194 pages and took more than four years to prepare. It involved 40 diverse stakeholders and a process that got better as it went along. It's the governor's Water Strategy Advisory Team report on the next 50 years, and the big conclusion is:

Water in Utah is complicated.

OK. That's not all it says, but it's a theme that runs through the report.

And that's actually an improvement on an earlier draft that came out last September. That draft, which was intended to be kept secret but found its way to the public, was more of a "how we've always done it" document. It encouraged talk of dam building on the Bear River in the north and a pipeline to St. George from Lake Powell and gave little credence to more environmentally manageable alternatives. The new report does not take those projects as givens, although it certainly didn't take them off the table, either.




Irrigation – from water projects large and small – helped make Utah what it is. Making the desert bloom and all that. And, with Utah's population expected to double in the next 50 years, there has been momentum to keep going. That has been met by a newer, more conservation-focused mindset that seeks to maximize the water we have before we launch more massive, earth-altering, bank-account-draining projects.

Their argument is that 80 percent of Utah's current water supply goes to agriculture, and most of that goes to grow alfalfa. Can't we just divert some of that to other uses before we swamp another riparian area with a dam?

The answer is "sometimes," but that brings us back to the report's bottom line: Water is indeed complicated.

It's complicated from a funding standpoint. Should we pay less for water through taxes and more through use-based fees so we'll use less? The report gives credence to that, but it acknowledges that making it happen can be difficult. Many water districts are still paying off bonds from earlier projects, and would have to raise rates dramatically if their customers actually started conserving aggressively.

And it's complicated from an environmental standpoint. Are we "wasting" water when we don't capture and use it? No. The biggest "consumer" of water is nature, and we need to maintain stream flows and try to replenish the stunningly low Great Salt Lake.

One of the most prominent improvements on the earlier draft is an acknowledgement of climate change, something that was a subject of debate for the team right up until publication. It's possible climate change will be a bigger part of the challenge than handling another 3 million people. Models indicate that, even if the amount of water falling in the state stays at current levels, it's likely that less of it will stay in the mountains as snowpack, Utah's primary method of water storage.

In the end, the document is less about a specific water projects and more about putting local players together to develop basin-specific strategies. It also recommends more funding for research, acknowledging we don't know how much water we already use.

What will Utah's water situation be in 50 years? This report doesn't really say, and that may be progress.

 

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