Hannah Downey: Water markets can rescue the Great Salt Lake

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this Nov. 2017 photo, researchers gather rock-like structures along the shores of at the Great Salt Lake that are formed by cyanobacteria known as microbialites. Bold water conservation strategies and changes in long-standing law and water policies are needed to slow the alarming shrinking of the Great Salt Lake. A recent report from an by an advisory panel found upstream diversions have long prevented vast quantities from replenishing the lake, reducing the lake by half its normal size with further declines predicted.

The Great Salt Lake is going thirsty. Between drought and upstream use, water levels have dropped 11 feet over the past decade. A drastic decline like that matters not only for the fish and wildlife that rely on the water for habitat, but also for the abundant economic activity dependent on the lake.

To protect the lake, something has to change. The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council recently released a report on how to keep the lake from drying up, and its first recommendation is a vital one: Amend Utah’s laws governing water use to legally define conservation a beneficial use of water. Beneficial use must be reexamined so that water owners are not punished, and could even be rewarded through markets, for leaving water instream to flow into the lake.

A primary cause of fights over water is that historic rights are based on consumption. As farmers and ranchers settled the West, they withdrew water from streams for crops and livestock. In general, the first person to use or divert water for a “beneficial use” acquired rights to that water, a system known as the prior appropriation doctrine. People who came after could claim a portion of the remaining water — leading to the popular description of “first in time, first in right.” These rights have been passed down for generations.

Today, the Utah Division of Water Rights can revoke an owner’s right to water if that water is not put to an approved use, which includes “consumptive” purposes such as irrigation, mining and municipal uses, and you have to prove beneficial use to the agency. Leaving a portion of your water instream to flow downriver and into the Great Salt Lake — and provide wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities — is not currently recognized as a beneficial water use, and if you don’t put all your water to a beneficial use, you could lose your right to it.

As those of us in the West are all too aware, water is a precious commodity. Losing water rights is a real fear. Under the “use it or lose it” structure, there is no reason to leave water instream if you’ll be punished for doing so.

Yet, as the plight of the Great Salt Lake should remind us, there are many benefits to leaving water instream. Low water levels can lead to increased dust, increased salinity and the spread of invasive species. It can also mean lost habitat for fish and wildlife, including protected migratory birds, and fewer aquatic recreational opportunities.

In addition, a 2019 report to the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council found that continued water declines could result in economic losses up to $2.17 billion per year and 6,500 lost jobs. Clearly, there’s much to be gained from increasing water flows into the lake.

It’s time for Utah to strengthen water rights by designating water conservation as a beneficial use. For water allocations to truly be rights, owners need the flexibility to decide how to use their rights — even if it means saving rather than consuming water. With this designation, water owners will be able to rest easy knowing their future water use will not be jeopardized if they allow more water to stay instream.

Moreover, if leaving water instream becomes an approved use, water could be traded, allowing for even larger conservation benefits. Groups with an interest in bolstering Great Salt Lake water levels — including conservationists, state agencies and businesses that rely on the lake — could pay upstream water owners to leave water instream.

Trout Unlimited has found a degree of success in Utah by leasing water for trout habitat, but the group faced significant policy and legal challenges for making the arrangement happen. Reforming water policy to promote conservation through markets would enable similar opportunities around the state.

Leasing or buying water for conservation purposes rewards traditional water users financially for reducing their use. If a rancher knows he can be paid to send water downstream, he has a reason to innovate or adopt new technologies to use his water more efficiently. In market exchanges, cooperation prevails over conflict, and both the water rights owner and conservationists benefit.

The old Western adage, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,” doesn’t need to be the case. By recognizing water conservation as a beneficial use, Utah can promote cooperation that can help restore the Great Salt Lake.

Hannah Downey

Hannah Downey is the policy director at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont.