Commentary: Utah's water plan still has miles to go

Conservation, not big diversion projects, is what the state needs.

On July 19, Utah’s 50-year State Water Strategy was released by the State Water Strategy Advisory Team. In an arid state where water is paramount to public health, the economy and the environment, the plan offers many sound and actionable strategies. Its focus on water conservation and better data management demonstrates responsible stewardship of Utah’s most precious natural resource. The state’s population is expected to nearly double over the next 50 years, and being increasingly efficient with every drop of water is absolutely necessary.

But it will be up to state policymakers, water utilities, and every individual to make sure we are good stewards of our water. The good news is there are literally dozens of cost-effective water-saving measures that can be implemented to reduce water waste without sacrificing our quality of life. Outdoor water use is one of the most important areas to focus on. As a first step, all water providers should install water meters to measure use of water used for outdoor irrigation – because you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Second, homes and businesses can install smart irrigation controllers to ensure that sprinklers are not watering when it’s raining or snowing, which will greatly reduce water waste while keeping landscapes beautiful.

Agriculture also has a role to play in our water future, as over 80 percent of Utah’s water is used for agriculture. The new State Water Strategy gets it right again by committing to maintain a robust agricultural economy while also exploring ways to help irrigators use water more efficiently. 

All that said, there is a major cart-before-the-horse problem with the plan. Two proposed water projects which would tap into the Colorado and Bear Rivers – the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Development Project – received plan support, in spite of the fact that the State acknowledges it does not have the data to justify the projects. Good data should be a prerequisite for any proposed water project, so that taxpayers who foot the bill know if there is actually a need for it or not.

These unnecessary water diversion projects will cost billions of dollars, take years to build, and threaten the health of Utah’s recreation-based economy. The Bear River Development Project also threatens the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, and the $1.3 billion economy that depends on it, including brine shrimp harvesting and mineral extraction processes. We have yet to make full and efficient use of our existing water supplies. We should optimize cheaper and safer water management alternatives first.

We’d like to thank the governor for convening this Advisory Team and for the hard work the Team put into this very important process. Now is the time to take action on the Strategy’s best elements to ensure that the cheapest, fastest, and best water management options for meeting our water future are fully realized before making taxpayers build unnecessary projects such as the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Project.

Lynn de Freitas is the Executive Director of Friends of Great Salt Lake, whose mission is the preservation and protection of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.  Friends seeks to increase public awareness and appreciation of the Lake through education, research, advocacy, and the arts. 

Amelia Nuding is a Senior Water Resources Analyst at Western Resource Advocates, which works to protect the West’s land air and water so our communities thrive in balance with nature.  She has worked on western water policy issues for over 10 years, leveraging partnerships and developing innovative policies to advance smart water management for the benefit of our communities, environment and economy.