Commentary: Taking a closer look at how Utah uses its water

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People cross the pipe over Little Cottonwood Creek as rising temperatures increase the flow on Thursday, June 13, 2019.

This year has been a good water year for Utah, with June snowpack levels in some areas measured at 200-plus percent above average and many of our reservoirs filling to capacity.

By many accounts, the state’s years-long drought is officially over, but now is not the time to take our eye off the wise-water-management prize. Our reservoirs might be rising, but our population also is rising along with demands for water — demands that will over time in this arid state test every bit of technology and innovation we can muster.

That’s why several years ago the Utah Legislature decided to set aside additional money each year for Utah State University’s Extension Program. Both the Legislature and the university recognized a pressing need to identify and fund research into the most critical water scarcity challenges that Utah faces now and will face in the future. Those questions include how to sustain agriculture and the natural environment even as municipal and industrial demands increase, what technologies hold the most promise to help farmers, homeowners, and businesses conserve water while maintaining healthy crops, a vibrant economy, and attractive landscaping, and whether there are social or legal changes that could encourage sustainable water use and conservation.

To further that effort, Utah State University will bring together policy makers, business leaders and community stakeholders on June 18 in Salt Lake City to talk about water issues in the state. The forum is part of USU series titled Research Landscapes, a series of discussions about research into our most vital natural resources: water, land, and air.

We believe that by presenting unbiased research that affects the lives of every Utahn on a variety of fronts, in plain language and an engaging forum, will help elevate the dialogue on these critical issues. It’s of vital importance to have lawmakers, business executives, community leaders, and scientists on the same page when it comes to how we plan, use, and manage our precious water resources.

USU associate dean and professor of biology Michelle Baker will lead the forum and discuss how Utah’s landscapes contribute to the health of cities and their residents, and how our changing population and economy necessitates a closer look into how we use water. Other topics that will be discussed during the presentation include:

USU researchers have projected that more and more of our water may fall in the form of rain, not snow. As most of our water storage strategy hinges on using mountain snowpack, such a shift could hinder our ability to store water for future use.

We'll talk about water banking, a system for enabling more efficient use of water rights through short-term, voluntary water transfers. USU research has synthesized lessons from other water banks and applied it to Utah’s unique needs.

Additionally, we'll have other researchers on hand to answer questions, and we'll share profiles of 30 more USU research projects that can serve as important resources for shaping water use decisions in the state.

We’re proud to work together on Research Landscapes and believe that programs like these will continue to strengthen partnerships among government, higher education, and business. With this partnership, Utah's problem solvers will be that much better prepared to develop more precise and efficient solutions for their communities. The more we work together to share our knowledge and experiences, the better prepared we'll be to weather Utah's next drought, in whatever form it might take.

For information on USU Research Landscapes and how to attend, please visit researchlandscapes.usu.edu.

State Rep. Timothy D. Hawkes

Timothy D. Hawkes, R-Centerville, represents the 18th District in the Utah House of Representatives.

Noelle Cockett, president of Utah State University

Noelle E. Cockett is president of Utah State University.