Utah’s efforts to conserve water think too small, the Editorial Board writes

Without action on sustainable energy and climate change, our water woes will only get worse.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lone Rock at Powell, on Sunday, September 6, 2020 and Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Desmond Tutu

You can work really hard bailing the excess water out of your floundering boat. You can get a bigger bucket, get other people to help, even invent some more efficient way to do it. But if you don’t find a way to plug the hole in the hull of your craft, it’s still a battle you are not going to win.

When the problem is not too much water, but too little, there are also efforts people can make to cope. You can conserve it, reserve it, reroute it, meter it or buy it, among other things. But whether the problem is flood or drought, the real solution is not only to struggle with the result but also to find and deal with the cause.

The most recent session of the Utah Legislature, as well as proposals from the office of Gov. Spencer Cox, suggests a new level of awareness of the ongoing megadrought that has Utah and the rest of the American Southwest in its grip. New laws and new money are focused on dealing with shrinking lakes, reservoirs, rivers and hydropower capacity. The state’s political class sees that the situation is dire enough that its traditional attitude of leaving everything to the private sector won’t be enough.

What remains disappointing is that, while our leaders are getting better at bailing, they still refuse to fix the hole. In the case of an ongoing drought, fixing the hole would mean realizing that the state’s ongoing devotion to mining, selling and using fossil fuels runs counter to the efforts they are making to conserve water.

What would help, along with these wise water policy changes, would be an all-in attitude toward realizing Utah’s great potential as a sustainable fuel superstar. The state has the potential to create new sources of nonpolluting energy, as well as high-paying jobs and sustainable business opportunities, in solar, wind, geothermal and things that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Utah has a strong entrepreneurial class, a large philanthropic sector, world-class research universities. What it lacks is the vision, legislation and funding to tie it all together, starting with requirements that ever-larger percentages of the state’s power supply be provided by renewable energy sources.

All Utah has now is a codified suggestion that its utilities get to a 20% renewable energy level by 2025, a standard that hasn’t changed since it was established in 2008. That’s way too far behind other states, including the 100% renewable standard by 2050 set by Colorado and Nevada.

The state is putting in place new laws, and more money, in attempts to preserve the shrinking Great Salt Lake. A bill put forward by House Speaker Brad Wilson, which was approved unanimously in both houses of the Legislature, devotes $40 million to a trust fund to save the Great Salt Lake.

There is a new law allowing those who now hold water rights to lease them to the state without losing those rights in the future. Turning away from a use-it-or-lose-it attitude toward water rights is a giant step in the right direction.

Utah is also abandoning its wasteful attitude toward what’s called “secondary water” — untreated water that’s not available for drinking but used to irrigate lawns, parks, golf courses and farms. Instead of pretending that that source of water is unlimited, another new law calls for secondary water to be metered, encouraging conservation either by charging more money for its use or just confronting customers with hard data on how much they are squandering.

These and other conservation measures may finally convince Utah’s agricultural sector that soaking up so much of our scarce water to grow alfalfa, which takes that water with it when it is shipped to China, just doesn’t make sense.

The most obvious example of the death spiral Utah faces is the fact that Lake Powell is rapidly becoming a puddle of its former self. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has put aside $2 million to figure out a way to continue to generate clean hydropower there even if the water level continues to decline to a level below existing power generating intakes, as forecasters fear may happen within two years.

If Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam can no longer produce power, it would be a loss of the five billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power generated annually. That’s about 450,000 homes worth of juice, now distributed by the Western Area Power Administration to 5 million customers in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska through the Western Area Power Administration.

And where would that lost generating power be made up? Sadly, a lot of it would have to come from fossil-fuel generators. Which would make climate change even worse, which would make Lake Powell even drier, and on and on.

Utah’s elected leaders have seen the need to be more careful with our water, and have put their money behind it. But, until they also see the need to move away from drought-creating fossil fuel dependence, even the bold steps they have taken won’t be enough.