Opinion: How you can help conserve water — and keep Utah’s lawmakers accountable

As population growth challenges reservoir capacity in the nation’s second driest state, water conservation should be a top priority for us all.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake Marina, on Friday, December 29, 2023.

2023 was the hottest year in recorded history, and scientists expect 2024 could be hotter. Despite last winter’s banner snowpack, Utah and the rest of the American West continue to deal with impacts of a decades-long drought. The Great Salt Lake has declined to 4,192.5 feet elevation. That’s down 11 feet since 1990 and 7.5 feet from its minimum healthy level.

As population growth challenges reservoir capacity in the nation’s second driest state, water conservation should be a top priority for us all.

Fortunately, there’s a strata of opportunities for water policy and program decision making available to all Utahns committed to conservation. Like the levels of Lake Powell’s bathtub ring, choices can be made by our state legislators and Gov. Spencer Cox on down through water districts to municipal and neighborhood councils and to where our homes meet the water. Points of change, political and personal, are available to those who care.

The 2024 Utah Legislature convenes Jan. 16. Several water bills have already been filed, including those that would:

  • Limit new turf grass on properties owned by cities, public schools, state agencies and highway authorities in the Great Salt Lake basin. [HB.11]

  • Develop water conservation resources for public schools. [HB.62].

  • An as-yet unnumbered bill would encourage and monitor public schools’ reduction of indoor and outdoor water usage.

  • Improve public notice of water use applications. [HB.42]

  • Improve measurement of state water supplies and usage. [HB.61]

For a variety of reasons chronicled in Gregory Smoak’s essay, “Utah Water Ways,” and despite several efforts over the years, Utah still lacks a truly comprehensive water conservation plan. Much of the planning and programs are handled regionally by 15 water conservancy districts that offer incentives for voluntary conservation measures through individual cities. Those programs include Flip Your Strip payments for park strip lawn removal and Slow The Flow rebates for low-water toilets and sprinkler systems. Utah’s Division of Water Resources notes that “60% of residential water use goes towards outdoor irrigation.”

Between and within conservancy districts, however, water conservation ordinances can range widely among local entities. For example, in Salt Lake County, served by the Jordan Valley and Central Utah Water Conservancy Districts, the capital city’s landscape ordinance requires irrigated vegetation in residential park strips. Violators can be fined. Conversely, West Jordan’s ordinance permits all-mulch xeriscaped park strips. Jordan Valley WCD refers residents to Localscapes for landscaping ideas, but examples that work in one community may be illegal in another.

Water conservation in the JVWCD is especially important, since its long-range procurement plans include taking water via pipeline from the controversial Bear River Development project. As the Utah Rivers Council warns, the Bear River Development would further starve the Great Salt Lake of much-needed water.

So, what can Utahns do in addition to cutting water use at our homes and businesses? You can:

Hold legislators accountable.

HEAL Utah conducts free workshops training citizens to lobby legislators and maintains volunteers at the State Capitol through the upcoming session. HEAL is joined by other public action groups like Great Salt Lake Audubon, Utah Sierra Club, Friends of Great Salt Lake, Conserve Utah Valley, Conserve Southwest Utah and Stop the Polluting Ports Coalition trying to protect water resources and wetlands habitat from profits-first developers and their political allies.

Organizations like Grow The Flow and Utah Youth Environmental Solutions seek to empower younger generations. The Youth Coalition for Great Salt Lake has an instruction sheet for young people wanting to email legislators.

A Rally to Save the Great Salt Lake will happen at the Capitol on Jan. 20.

Hold city and neighborhood councils accountable.

City councils periodically update landscape ordinances and hold public hearings. The Salt Lake City Council has such a hearing set for Jan. 9 to decide the extent to which water conservation measures are allowed or encouraged in yards and park strips.

Decision makers at all levels pay attention to neighborhood councils. In 2014, 10 councils across Salt Lake County passed resolutions against a power company surcharge on rooftop solar customers. Utah’s utility regulator subsequently rejected the surcharge.

Your neighborhood council could help Utah achieve more effective water policies and programs.

Hold yourself accountable.

Take action, recognizing that politicians interpret your silence as tacit support for the status quo. Support water conservation groups with your time and/or money. Any of the civic groups listed above would welcome the addition of your voice.

Stan Holmes

Stan Holmes is a retired public school teacher living in Salt Lake City. He volunteers with the Stop the Polluting Ports Coalition.

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