This is no drought and low-flow toilets and secondary water meters won’t end it.
By definition, a drought is a period of abnormally dry weather that eventually ends. What Utah and much of the American West face is better termed “aridification.” This is the process of a region becoming drier through decreased precipitation and/or rising temperatures.
And it refers to long-term permanent change. Changes such as diminished rain and snowfall, dying vegetation, declining reservoirs and water tables, increased forest fires and a record breaking low for the Once Great Salt Lake.
The list of water worries is long: toxic lake bed dust storms, birdlife crashes, water recreation and skiing economies threatened, wells going dry, livelihoods endangered, dead lawns, dying trees and rising temperatures.
Finally, after years of prompting, Utah’s Legislature and governor have devoted millions of dollars to water infrastructure, planning and management. This is a huge improvement over absurd proposals such as the Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear River Diversion. At least they’re looking at reducing demand instead of magically increasing supply, but it will be too little too late unless we make some big and challenging changes.
Those changes are outside of our homes and business. Utah agriculture uses 85% of our water supply. Of the remaining 15% consumed by cities and industry, 75% is poured on non-native plants like grass.
Take a drive up the Bear River, Great Salt Lake’s most important tributary. Beneath brown hills and a searing sun, massive sprinklers gently rain down on impossibly green fields. Some of this is food crops, but most of it is water-thirsty alfalfa, grown for livestock here, out-of-state, and even shipped abroad.
Because farmers and ranchers typically have “senior water rights,” they have diverted every creek, stream, and river to flood and sprinkle fields of crops that have no place in a desert. While legal, and somewhat profitable (agriculture only makes up 3% of the state’s GDP), it’s impractical.
Unfortunately, our deep attachment to pioneer agrarian mythology means that much of the new water money is allocated for “agriculture optimization.” Finding better ways to grow thirsty crops in the desert are not sustainable. Not with climate change. Not with population growth.
Recent legislation allows farmers to lease (without losing) their water rights for other uses like streamflow. That’s a good start, but it’s only likely to happen when there is a surplus of water — rare these days — and it can only happen fast enough if we pay market value and then some.
And that’s the rub. Utah has hidden the true cost of water through property taxes, subsidies, development fees and federally funded infrastructure such that we have nearly the cheapest water in the country. Price something high enough (think gasoline) and people will quit wasting it.
Bike through any Utah neighborhood and you may think you’re in Ohio and not the second driest state in the country where residents use more water per capita than anyone to create an oasis in the desert. Until recently, citizens could be fined for not having a green lawn.
The reverse needs to be true; if you want a lush green lawn, it should be expensive. Take a walk through a Phoenix, Los Angeles or Las Vegas neighborhood and you’ll see the difference.
And this is where the secondary water metering solution stumbles: The state’s water agencies estimate it’ll take hundreds of millions of dollars and many years to add meters for 250,000 households. Far faster and cheaper would be to phase out the secondary water systems, and add their flow (after filtering and treatment) to the culinary system and deliver it through the pipes and meters that already exist. Price it honestly and homeowners and business will make far more water wise decisions.
There will be significant backlash to these two proposals — buy farmers’ water rights and phase out the secondary water systems — but it is the fastest and cheapest solution as we face relentless population growth in a drying climate.
The water lawyers and agrabusinesses and conservancy districts, with their legislative toadies and our farmer governor, will line up and declare this a “war on farm families,” but the truth is, this will directly affect a small portion of Utah’s population. And, they should be more than fairly compensated for their water. It’s been done elsewhere. (San Diego bought out Imperial Valley farmers for example.)
With Utah’s addiction to growth at all costs, suburbia is overtaking the farms anyway, so we might as well speed up the process. And nearly all recent urban development doesn’t enjoy subsidized secondary water, so this a far fairer way to distribute this precious resource.
Utah is not running out of water. Utah has run out of the ability to waste water. Shorter showers, brownish lawns, metered secondary water and smarter agriculture will not save Great Salt Lake. Utah’s water crisis demands big system-wide changes.
Prayers for rain are nice, but aridification tends to ignore them.
Eric Ewert is professor and chair of the Department of Geography, Environment & Sustainability at Weber State University.