Commentary: Utah’s Economy: A River Runs Through It

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune File Photo) Overview of The Loop from the saddle that looks down on the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Signing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act on Oct. 2, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson said, “Every individual and every family should get to know at least one river.”

As we celebrate 50 years of protecting America’s rivers, our rivers and waters continue to tell the story of the West. Rivers sustain us; from the water we drink, to the food we eat. They also provide recreation and renewal; from the story of John Wesley Powell’s epic descents down the Green and Colorado rivers to biking Ogden’s new River Parkway.

Today, water in the West is challenged, and that challenge requires that we all renew our connection to and support for our water and river resources. Over the last 20 years, below-average precipitation and snowpacks have depleted rivers as well as stored and groundwater resources. Current Colorado River flows in southern Utah are just 50 percent of normal. Lake Mead is 38 percent full. And the economies driven by healthy rivers in Utah could be thrown out of balance by the development of the multi-billion-dollar Lake Powell Pipeline.

A warmer climate and drought are only part of the story. Like Salt Lake, cities and towns across the West are booming, only increasing the demand on our already stressed rivers. New dams and diversions are proposed, challenging stream flows. Angling in Utah is a core industry. We have seen this year the effect of lower, slower flows and warmer water in our rivers — fishing and fish populations are threatened.

As this story plays out across Utah and the Southwest, how do we ensure a secure water future for our farms, factories, communities — and our rivers? These four pillars support the economy of the West and also the quality of life so many of moved here for. Americans spend $887 billion annually on outdoor recreation — $97 billion of that on river-related recreation. The Colorado River system, including Utah tributaries, drives a $26 billion recreation economy, with $2.1 billion of that spent in our state every year. These numbers represent the economies dependent on our rivers and we must act now to protect them.

Utahans need to rise to the challenge. Get to know at least one river. Take a family river trip or volunteer on a river clean up in your community. Get to know your water usage — your water footprint — at home and at work. Conservation can lead the way. Despite record growth in the Denver-metro area, Denver Water customers use the same amount of water today as in 1973.

Business is stepping up as well. On Chalk Creek, a tributary of the Weber River here in Utah, farmers worked with Trout Unlimited and foundation funding to modernize irrigation systems and change water diversion points. Restoring critical, base flows to Chalk Creek has provided fish passage and access to critical spawning habitat for the rare Bonneville Cutthroat Trout.

And finally, take the time to become river and water smart. While Utah is home to soaring peaks, historically ample snowpacks and beautiful rivers, our water security is tied to our neighbors in downstream states. We are all in this together and working collaboratively, we must ensure ample supplies to sustain agriculture, industry, communities and our rivers.

As citizens of the West, our future depends on it.

Lindsey Elliott

Lindsey Elliott is co-founder and CEO of WYLDER Goods.

Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program at the national river advocacy nonprofit American Rivers.

Matt Rice is director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers.