Commentary: Water in Utah is a complicated issue

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sediments deposited by the Colorado River into the bed of the now receded Lake Powell in Hite, Utah. This picture, taken on Nov. 28, 2018, shows where the Dirty Devil River and Colorado River come together.

During my 14 years as the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, I’ve appreciated the many well-intentioned, passionate people involved with state leaders on water policy. While they are typically not water experts, they often provide great insight and feedback.

Occasionally there are special interest groups who are not interested in reasonable solutions or working together. Sometimes founded in misinformation, these groups work to push their own agenda and further their cause. This approach is counterproductive and harms other special interest groups.

Utah’s alpine lakes and red rocks present very different water scenarios. The Wasatch Front is a closed basin with high runoff and return flows finding their way back to the Great Salt Lake. Any change to how these flows are managed, reused or diverted affects the Great Salt Lake.

Alternatively, Washington County is not a closed basin, so they can exercise extreme conservation and water reuse but they are severely limited with just one primary water source, the Virgin River and its tributaries. Given population and economic growth, an additional water source is needed to diversify the area’s water supply. Factors like these make it impossible to create a one-size-fits-all water policy that’s applicable state-wide.

The belief that all of our water challenges can be addressed through seemingly simple solutions like implementing a rain barrel program or only water conservation, reuse of all water or taking agriculture water is simply false. In fact, those who think that way are enemies of the Great Salt Lake because these are the types of policies that will actually result in less water getting to the lake.

With Utah’s population expected to double by 2065, the DNR takes planning for the future seriously. We look at the big picture and how growth impacts the state – from the forests to the fish to the lakes and rivers to the people who depend on and enjoy them. It’s a balanced and coordinated effort that includes conservation, improved efficiency of existing infrastructure, and developing new infrastructure when and where necessary.

Utahns are conserving more water as they respond to the “Slow the Flow” message, apply for water-saving rebates and follow the weekly lawn watering guide. Even though we’ve had a great water year so far, our reservoirs are still recovering. Conservation is a cornerstone to sustaining Utah’s quality of life.

It’s our enviable quality of life that continues to draw people to our state in record numbers. Growth in southern Utah continues to be among the fastest in the country. With just one water source providing water to the area’s 200,000-plus residents and visitors, the Legislature directed the state to move forward with the Lake Powell Pipeline project to help supply water to 13 communities and diversify the area’s water supply.

Water use reports are submitted by water suppliers. This results in a comprehensive report of Utah’s water use. Currently, there is no standard for water-use reporting, so other states account for their water use differently. For example, Nevada doesn’t count tourism water use and we do. It’s because of our comprehensive water reporting that our per-capita water usage numbers appear higher than other states. The 2017 Legislative Followup Audit showed that the recommended updated methodologies has significantly improved Utah’s water use data.

A 2017 Tribune editorial states that “Water in Utah is complicated.” After 14 years overseeing the Division of Water Resources and as a farmer, former legislator and county commissioner, I agree. Managing our state’s precious water resources means considering the needs of the collective whole and working together to manage and protect our state’s resources.

Mike Styler, Division of Natural Resources

Mike Styler has served as the director of the Department of Natural Resources since 2005. He holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics and business education from Brigham Young University and was a member of the Utah House of Representatives from 1992 to 2005. Upon retiring, he plans to return to his farm in Millard County, where he also served on the Millard County Commission from 1983-1990 and taught history in the Millard School District.