Why Utah must take back control from the water buffaloes, Editorial Board writes

Water policy shouldn’t be set by people in the business of selling water.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

― Upton Sinclair

They are called, officially, Utah’s “water conservancy districts,” even though conserving anything often seems to be furtherest from the minds of the four public agencies charged with gathering and delivering water to most of the state’s population.

A more accurate descriptor is the informal one hung on the four agencies by their many critics. The “water buffaloes.”

As has been long argued by many environmental and conservation activists in Utah, and as outlined in a recent article from the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica, the agencies empowered by the Legislature to transport and sell water to the state’s population centers never met a pipeline they didn’t love. And to them, conservation is for sissies.

As the populations of the Wasatch Front and Washington County continue to soar, creating many thirsty homes, businesses, lawns and golf courses, the solutions proposed by the state’s water barons almost always include dams, reservoirs and staggeringly expensive pipelines, particularly the $2 billion Lake Powell pipeline, envisioned to carry water from the shrinking lake on the Utah-Arizona border to the booming developments in and around St. George 140 miles away.

While all this debate goes on, the Great Salt Lake is shrinking at an alarming rate due to large amounts of water already being diverted for domestic and agricultural use. The threat of a toxic dust cloud rising from what used to be the lake bed will only grow if the state foolishly adopts plans to build more dams on the Bear River.

Conservation measures enacted in other Colorado River Basin states, suggested by Utah environmental advocates, even proposed by members of the Utah Legislature, never seem to get a full hearing, much less a real effort.

A bill to start metering the amounts of water used to irrigate crops and water lawns and golf courses? Nope.

A bill to limit or end the practice of hiding the real cost of water by covering costs with property taxes instead of water rates? No, thank you.

Measures to push water districts and retailers to find ways to limit the loss of water in leaky pipes? To encourage water districts to find any of a number of other ways to reduce per-capita consumption? No and no.

But a bill to create a Colorado River Authority of Utah, a body that will operate in secret to fight for Utah’s share of the water in that system (if there is any)? Where do we sign?

Even though updated measurements of the smaller amounts of water that actually exist in the basin, calculations made by some conservation groups contend that Utah is already drawing more water than it should be entitled to.

In every case, the priorities of the water buffaloes — Washington County Water Conservancy District, Central Utah Water Conservancy District, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District and Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District — win the day. And those priorities, with rare exceptions, are to build infrastructure and move water from where it is to where people want it.

It is a habit that has drawn the ire of other states that also claim a share of the dwindling amounts of water supplied by the Colorado River. In a formal protest of Utah’s Lake Powell pipeline design, the state of Nevada dismissed Utah’s self-described “extreme” water conservation measures — raising prices and paying homeowners to reduce the size of thirsty lawns, for example — as routine steps long common in Nevada and other Western states.

One might think Utah’s political class, where candidates scuffle to outdo one another on how conservative they are, would be more interested in actually conserving things, particularly water and money.

Somebody who isn’t in the business of selling water needs to take over the calculations of how much water Utah has and how much it really needs. That somebody needs to factor in the inevitable impact of climate change on the flows that will be found in the Colorado, Green, Bear and other rivers, as well as the amount of water — and money — that could be saved through common conservation measures and that will be saved though the rapid transition of thirsty alfalfa farms into residential areas that, even with their very undesert-like lawns and parks, still use a lot less water per acre than agriculture.

John Wesley Powell, the 19th century explorer for whom Lake Powell is named, tried to warn us.

As recounted in “Utah Water Ways,” written by University of Utah history professor Gregory E. Smoak and published by Utah Humanities, Powell was practically booed off the stage when, in 1893, he explained to a group planning massive irrigation projects throughout the West that, “You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”

There wasn’t, and there isn’t, and there aren’t enough pipes in the whole world to change that.

Sometimes, when our leaders show a glimmer of recognition of how bad this problem is, they call for us to seek divine intervention. We’d be better off using the tools the Almighty has already given us — mostly our brains and our connection to the natural world — to replace construction with conservation.