Commentary: A chance to change directions on Utah water policy

Mike Styler, Division of Natural Resources

Longtime Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler is retiring at the end of the month, opening up a great opportunity for Utah to change course on its wasteful and expensive water management practices.

Styler has been an ardent supporter of the proposed $3.2 billion Lake Powell Pipeline, which is the largest new proposed diversion of the Colorado River and by far the most expensive state spending proposal on the table. One of Styler’s agencies, the Division of Water Resources, has spent a staggering $38 million pushing the pipeline, regardless of the fact that there is no data showing any need for the water in southwestern Utah.

Economists from the University of Utah have studied the pipeline’s repayment economics and concluded the project will drown local residents in debt from increased water rates, property taxes and impact fees. A scathing legislative audit of the division, which occurred on Styler’s watch, blasted the agency for having unreliable water data, not trying very hard to conserve water and for ignoring massive quantities of surplus agricultural water in favor of pursuing billions in spending for new water development projects.

The division is also proposing the largest new river diversion in North America, the $2.4 billion Bear River Development Project. The project would include building at least three new dams and a 90-mile pipeline to divert the river’s flows away from the Great Salt Lake to lawns along the Wasatch Front. It would lower the lake several feet, drying up tens of thousands of acres of wetlands and exposing vast tracts of lakebed creating toxic dust storms as prevailing winds sweep in.

The project would also create problems around resources that Styler’s other divisions manage, including mining, wildlife, water rights and sovereign lands. However, the Division of Water Resources doesn’t seem to care, and neither has Styler.

Utah should be heading in the other direction pursuing a sustainable water future rather than a legacy of destruction. Additionally, it could avoid the billions of dollars of debt that these projects will place upon the backs of Utah taxpayers.

Last but not least, the new DNR boss, Brian Steed, would do well to insist the division mimic the actions of water managers in other western states, who are aggressively pursing demand management strategies, or water conservation, which is the cheapest and least destructive new source of water to support growing communities.

State water managers outside Utah are also carefully studying climate change in order to prepare for a diminished water supply as air temperatures rise. The Utah Division of Water Resources under Styler’s direction has only given lip service to conservation, as evidenced by Utah’s nation-leading per capita water use. The agency has also refused to study climate change impacts preferring to keep their head in the sand.

New leadership at DNR will hopefully bring new thinking on water resource issues that will benefit aquatic ecosystems and taxpayers alike.

Nick Schou, Salt Lake City, is conservation director at the Utah Rivers Council.