James Westwater: Problems and solutions for Utah’s water crisis

(Bryan Tarnowski/The New York Times) Kevin Perry, a professor of atmospheric studies at the University of Utah, walks on land that used to be submerged by the Great Salt Lake in Utah, March 15, 2022. Climate change and rapid population growth are shrinking the lake, creating a bowl of toxic dust that could poison the air around Salt Lake City.

The Utah Valley Earth Forum recently hosted a Zoom forum on “Solving Utah’s Growing Water Crisis.” Here is my summary take on what was discussed by our panel of five experts.

• Problem: We are in a 1,200 year mega-drought.

• Solution: We should seriously address the main cause of the drought — the climate crisis — by greatly reducing our carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases, which in turn heat the planet causing huge environmental damage such as droughts, wildfires, famine, melting ice and sea level rise, and many other climate and weather-related catastrophes. We should switch to clean, safe renewable energy, stop wasting water and do a much better job managing and conserving water.

• Problem: The drying of the Great Salt Lake (GSL) and the resulting “environmental nuclear bomb” — toxic dust air pollution.

• Solution: We need to successfully combat the climate crisis. Locally, we should curtail diverting water that normally flows into the GSL (and Utah Lake) — mostly water now used by agriculture to grow water-intensive hay for cattle feed, much of which is shipped abroad. Utah agriculture needs to steadily move away from growing cattle feed. Help farmers switch to crops and methods that greatly reduce water consumption (e.g. hydroponics and permaculture) and or help farmers learn other skills and professions.

• Problem: Rapid population growth (locally and globally) and a resulting increasing demand for water as the supply decreases.

• Solution: We should educate people and provide incentives to gradually curtail local, national and worldwide population.

• Problem: How we manage, meter and pay — or don’t pay — for water, including water justice issues (where the poor and nature suffer most).

• Solution: Stop taxing property to pay for water. In order to cut waste and misuse, meter and price all water use to truly reflect its existential value and diminishing supply. For the low income population, price a reasonable, non-wasteful amount of water at an affordable rate, but have a substantially progressive rate structure after that to encourage conservation and wise use.

• Problem: Polluting our lakes, rivers and streams.

• Solution: We should implement practices such as advanced waste water treatment, and regulations to greatly reduce pollutants (including nutrients and toxins) entering water bodies from all sources including residential, municipal, industrial and agricultural.

• Problem: The Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear River Project.

• Solution: Do not spend one penny more on wasteful, environmentally harmful water development schemes.

• Problem: Watering thirsty lawns, golf courses and private swimming pools in a mega-drought.

• Solution: Price water to discourage those uses and implement policies encouraging residents, governments and businesses to install water-wise alternatives such as xeriscaping. Curtail the number of golf courses and replace thirsty grass fairways with water-wise grasses and plants.

• Problem: Diminishing snowpack, lowering water tables, drying up wells, reservoirs and sources of water for wildlife.

• Solution: Greatly reduce burning fossil fuels and switch to clean, safe, nature and health-friendly renewable sources of energy and power. Significantly reduce diverting water that normally would normally help keep our lakes and other lakes, rivers and streams healthy. Greatly improve management and conservation of water. Both meter and price water appropriately. Make sure that enough water is available for wildlife.

• Problem: The dwindling flow of the Colorado River.

• Solution: Implement all solutions herein, and do not syphon off Colorado River water to facilitate new water dependent developments.

• Problem: Outdated water rights and city ordinances that discourage water conservation.

• Solution: Change water rights so water use is metered, limited and progressively priced — the more you use, the more you pay. This will affect agriculture most and encourage farmers to switch from water intensive hay to water-wise crops. Implement policies to encourage city residents and businesses to replace labor- and water-intensive grassy areas with water-wise, energy saving, low polluting, low maintenance alternatives such as xeriscaping (xeriscape.uvef.org). Progressively fine wasting water like Las Vegas does.

• Problem: using most of Utah’s water to grow water-intensive hay and irrigating farm fields by flooding, especially in a mega-drought.

• Solution: Help farmers steadily wean from water intensive crops—such as cattle feed hay—and the use of water-wasting irrigation practices such as field flooding. Help farmers afford water-wise irrigation and move away from hay.

James Westwater

James Westwater, Ph.D., Spanish Fork, is chairman and founder of the all-volunteer Utah Valley Earth Forum (UVEF.org) and a member of the U.S. Climate Action Network. He is a former NSF Artist in the Antarctic and a two time National Endowment for the Arts Resident Artist. His website is VisionOfTheWest.com.