Tribune Editorial: Talking about drought without facing climate is a waste of time

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s drought ‘emergency’ has lots of recommendations and no climate action.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hite Marina boat ramp comes to an end hundreds of yards from the edge of the Colorado River as it flows into Lake Powell on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

Last week in this space, we objected to the description of the events at our southern border as a “crisis.”

No matter how bad something is, if it is now in its third presidential administration, it’s not a crisis. It’s the way things are.

The same quibble can be raised in response to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s recent declaration of a “state of emergency” due to the ongoing drought.

The drought Utah and the American West are now suffering through is real, is bad and requires action on many fronts. Cox is correct to call everyone’s attention to it. He is correct to activate the state’s Drought Response Committee to make assessments and recommendations.

He is right to note that the drought may not end soon and that steps from curtailing agricultural irrigation to taking shorter showers are good ideas, though even those steps are listed as recommendations rather than directives.

But calling our water shortage an “emergency” suggests that it can be dealt with in a short period of time by applying some kind of precipitation CPR. The reality is that the drought is almost certainly Utah’s new normal, and it will only get worse unless we bring in a term that Cox’s declaration tellingly omits: Climate change.

All segments of the Utah economy should be learning to live with less water. While the methods of measurement are often disputed, the fact is that conservative Utah just isn’t very good at conserving water. We use more water per capita than other dry southwestern states and generally seem allergic to the idea that we could use price signals — the more gallons you use, the more you pay per gallon — to discourage wasteful watering of everything from lawns to parks to golf courses to, especially, animal feed.

In urban areas, far too much of our water infrastructure (except in Salt Lake City) is funded through property taxes, which artificially depresses the per-gallon price of water and rewards overuse by tax-exempt acreages such as schools and churches.

Even before the current drought — or the one that inspired a similar declaration from then-Gov. Gary Herbert in 2018 — Utah has put far too much effort into pretending we’re not a desert. A 2014 report from the Utah Foundation notes that 82% of Utah’s water usage is for agriculture, and half of that goes to grow alfalfa, much of which is exported as animal feed, taking with it more water than is used by all of Utah’s cities and towns.

To the degree that Cox’s emergency declaration is intended to qualify Utah farmers for federal disaster aid, rather than move our state’s economy away from that cash crop, it may be a bad idea.

Given this administration’s — and our Legislature’s — love for fossil fuels, it is probably too much to hope that, as Cox and his Drought Response Committee consider the lay of the very dry land and decide what to do next, they will see that the only long-term action that makes any sense is a recognition that global climate change is happening. That it is caused, at least in part, by human activity. That if we don’t move rapidly away from fossil fuels and toward exploiting Utah’s great potential for renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, our situation will only get worse.

Some optimism may be drawn from the fact that two high-profile Utah Republicans — Rep. John Curtis and Sen. Mitt Romney — are not among the climate denial chorus. Both see not only that the problem is real but also that their party is behind the curve in proposing ways to deal with it.

Both seem to see that if there are to be private-sector, market-based solutions followed, rather than top-down limits and rules imposed, there is little time to lose.

Romney, chatting the other day with The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board, voiced support for a scheme that’s known as the Baker-Schultz Plan, an idea championed by James A. Baker III and George P. Schultz, both respected policy-makers and both secretary of state in Republican administrations.

The core of the plan is a tax on carbon, starting at $40 per ton and rising, with the revenue plowed back as a dividend to all American taxpayers. That appeals to Romney because, instead of burdening the economy with rules and taxes, it would inspire American ingenuity to invent low- or no-carbon energy technologies, which could then be sold to nations around the world so that they, too, could reduce their reliance on fossils fuels.

It’s not altogether fair to point to growing use of coal to power economic growth in, say, China and India, as a reason why anything we do in the United States is pointless. We’re still 4% of the world’s population and produce 15% of the world’s carbon emissions. Per-capita emissions in the U.S. are double that of China and more than 7 times that of India.

What we do here matters. Any realistic approach to water shortages in Utah will accept that.