Utah spent millions on water conservation program for farmers. But nobody knows if it worked.

Audit dings Utah’s agriculture department for lack of data on whether taxpayer-funded program has made a difference for the Great Salt Lake.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bear River, the Great Salt Lake's largest tributary, flows into the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. Lawmakers have spent millions to help farmers upgrade their irrigation to ensure more water reaches the lake and its tributary rivers, but a recent audit found the Department of Agriculture and Food isn't monitoring water savings.

Utah has a water data collection problem.

One of the state’s most expensive conservation projects to date — the Agricultural Water Optimization Program — isn’t reporting information on changes in water consumption like it’s supposed to. State lawmakers poured a significant amount of public funds into the program, managed by the Department of Agriculture and Food, but a legislative audit released this week found it needs better accounting.

“It is incumbent on UDAF to manage public funds according to best practices so that those funds can be measured and maximized,” the report says. “However, this has not occurred in critical ways.”

The Water Optimization Program began in 2019. It provides state funds for farmers to upgrade their irrigation practices, with the farmers providing a 50-50 match. The program received a massive infusion of federal cash during the pandemic, with lawmakers tapping money from the American Rescue Plan Act. The state has issued $65 million in grants through the program so far and plans to award $200 million more in the coming year.

The program was meant to serve as a critical tool in getting more water to the Great Salt Lake. With recent legislative changes to water law, the farmer gets to keep any conserved water and sell it for a public benefit, like leases to the desiccated lake or to help municipalities.

In order to prove the state’s investment actually resulted in more water, however, grant recipients are supposed to submit an annual report on their water use for three years. The audit found that isn’t happening.

The program has funded 332 projects across the state so far.

“As auditors, as you guys know, we love to be able to evaluate progress,” said Madison Hoover, an audit supervisor for the Legislative Auditor General, at a legislative interim hearing Wednesday. “But unfortunately, because the program had not collected this needed information, we’re unable to actually evaluate [whether] those outcomes actually matched the program’s purpose.”

The agriculture department called the effort a “great success.” But legislative auditors said that’s difficult to prove.

“Unfortunately,” Hoover said, “the program did not ensure that enough data was collected on those completed projects to actually support their preliminary claims of early success.”

The audit also knocked the department’s lack of a strategic plan for the pricey program. It directed the department to the auditor general’s own handbook for government agencies, released earlier this year, which outlines best practices and pitfalls.

“We see developing a formal strategic plan as the essential first step,” Hoover said, “so that the program can set a clear direction, and also assess its own progress.”

Craig Butters, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Food, told lawmakers his department didn’t have enough completed projects to collect sufficient data. But he agreed both data reporting and a strategic plan for the program are “very important.”

“We realize the importance of the program,” Butters said. “We realize our responsibility.”

The legislative auditor’s office has conducted many water analyses over the last decade, but this week’s report marks the first time it has looked into agricultural water use, auditors said, even though the industry diverts the vast majority of Utah’s water. Farming and ranching use 61.5% of the available water in the Great Salt Lake basin, according to a report by the Great Salt Lake Strike Team released earlier this year.

The strike team identified agricultural water optimization as one of the most effective policy tools for saving the shrinking lake.

But the audit isn’t the first public criticism of how Utah’s water optimization program has been administered so far. Earlier this month, the Utah Rivers Council released its vision for getting the Great Salt Lake back to a sustainable elevation.

The nonprofit water watchdog group called on lawmakers to require program participants to return water back to the state that’s proportional to the public investment in irrigation upgrades — water state resource managers could then use to help environmental causes in arid Utah.

“This audit proves that taxpayers are being fleeced if they think this water is going to the Great Salt Lake,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit, in a news release. “The Legislature either needs to require water delivery to the Great Salt Lake with new legislation or yank the remaining $200 million back.”

The legislative audit also investigated the Division of Water Rights and Division of Water Resources. It found the agencies could better manage water data and present it in a format that’s more transparent. It further called on state regulators to improve monitoring and protection of groundwater. Over-pumped aquifers have caused shortages across Utah.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org