Utahns are ‘very concerned’ about water and want officials to do more, USU poll says

The report, released Thursday by Utah State, outlines Utah’s environmental issues and what Utah lawmakers can do.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The shore of the Great Salt Lake on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

A new survey from Utah State University says around 55% of Utahns are “very concerned” with a lack of water throughout the state. Meanwhile, the same survey says only a fraction of Utahns — only 14% — believe elected officials are doing enough to address the issue.

The survey is just one aspect of the newly-released yearly report from USU’s Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air — a report that outlines the environmental issues Utah faces, along with what Utah lawmakers can do to better address those issues.

Brian Steed, the executive director for the institute, said during a presentation Thursday in downtown Salt Lake City, that the water outlook in 2022 was “terrifying.” Though a wet, snowy winter helped, Utah is far from in the clear.

“Given current use patterns, it would take an additional six water years like the one we just had in order to refill (Lake Mead and Lake Powell),” Steed said Thursday. “Just being very honest, we don’t anticipate that being the case.”

The report covers five aspects of Utah’s environment — land, water, air, the Colorado River and energy — and identifies issues or potential solutions to some of the state’s biggest issues.

For example, the report recommends more carefully measuring and tracking water through rivers, canals and other waterways to more carefully track how much water reaches the Great Salt Lake. The report also includes the results of a Utah State study that suggest the state has, “significant opportunities for conservation inside homes through replacing inefficient water fixtures.”

The report, which is now in its third year of publication, included the Colorado River as one of its main focuses that lawmakers can focus on in the upcoming year. Steed said the health of the river is one of the two most important issues Utah faces, “so trying to get better information into the hands of policymakers who need it really important.”

Steed told The Salt Lake Tribune that the Colorado River, which provides water to seven different states in the West, is a particular concern after multiple dry years in a row. This year, for example, Steed said more water was released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to help with levels at southern Utah’s Lake Powell.

“Then we saw continued use of Lake Powell water in the lower (Colorado River) basin, and that scares a lot of people, you know, is that the future?” Steed said after the Thursday event.

Another large concern of the Institute of Land, Water and Air is energy. The report notes that Rocky Mountain Power, one of the largest power providers in the state, has started to transition toward carbon-free energy from nuclear power, other plans to create sustainable power infrastructure are still in the development phase.

The report also notes that in 2022, “53% of Utah’s electricity production came from coal-fired power plants in 2022,” according to the Energy Information Administration.

Joel Ferry, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, stressed the importance of lawmakers having the most up-to-date information, which in turn can be used to make the most crucial changes to state policy to preserve the environment. Ferry said Utah is at a unique crossroads — the state’s population growing quickly, but Utah’s environment has its limits.

“We have limited water, we have limited resources and we need to use those to their highest and best use,” Ferry said Thursday. “So having the data that’s provided from the institute and from other research, universities and other sources is so valuable in the decision-making process.”

Steed said Thursday that last year’s report made it into the hands of 98% of state lawmakers, adding he hopes to get that number up this year.