Steve Glaser: Utah agriculture must play its part in water conservation

Utah must find a way to help its farmers use less water, even if it’s expensive.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Irrigation in Moab on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

I have spent my life holding desk jobs. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a farmer. So it is unfair for me to ask our farmers to use less water when it’s not my livelihood at stake.

Yet I also know that we have less water than ever before, and that we’re looking at a hotter and drier future. Furthermore, I know that agriculture uses the great majority of water in our state, and any conservation program that doesn’t include the agricultural sector will have a very limited impact on our water availability.

I’m sure that farmers are more aware of this than I am. They are also cognizant of the effects of water diversions for their fields on the surrounding landscape, whether that is the Great Salt Lake, or various reservoirs, rivers or lakes all over our state.

It is unacceptable to let the Great Salt Lake dry up, to become a giant source of toxic dust that could envelope parts of Salt Lake City, of Farmington, of Ogden, and parts in-between. It is unacceptable to destroy the brine shrimp industry, or to hamstring companies that extract valuable minerals from the lake. It would be unthinkable to break an ecosystem that feeds millions of nesting birds that have no other place to go.

It would also be unthinkable to bankrupt farmers in the name of saving this gem. The selfish part of me wants to have locally grown food available. But more to the point, running someone out of a good, honest livelihood is just plain wrong.

Our Legislature has passed several bills, good bills, to aid the lake, but I haven’t heard anyone saying we can expect lake levels to start rising anytime soon. The bills are good, but insufficient.

So what to do? Fortunately, there are ways for farmers to conserve water while still having productive fields.

We can pipe or cover irrigation canals so that there is no longer a loss of water to evaporation. Israel uses drip irrigation to raise crops. Here in Utah, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District has a demonstration project converting traditional center pivot irrigation systems to ones that use high efficiency, low elevation sprinkler applicators. These can be 95% efficient and save 20% to 30% of the water used by center pivot systems. If we save 20% to 30% of the water used by agriculture, it will be equivalent to eliminating all of the residential water use in our state.

Why hasn’t this already been done? I don’t know. I’m not a farmer. But I’m willing to bet these projects take a lot of money up front. Money that most farmers don’t have.

So here’s a solution. Let’s have our state help. It might be low-interest loans. It might be asking farmers to pay for a portion of these projects, with Utah paying for the rest. It might be Utah paying for the whole project in exchange for the farmer ceding some of their water rights — rights they would no longer need given that the same harvest could be achieved with less water — and agreeing to let the now excess water flow to the Great Salt Lake, or whatever other water body is downstream.

Where could this money come from? Utah has consistently prioritized our roads. Some of our road money comes from the gas tax, but a large chunk comes from other sources such as sales taxes. For the next few years, we need to prioritize water over roads. Let’s delay some new road construction, and instead build systems that save water. And the Great Salt Lake, and reservoirs, rivers and lakes throughout Utah. And our farmers.

Steve Glaser

Steve Glaser is a retired chemist who evaluated toxic waste sites. He lives in Holladay.