John Oliver and The Times don’t offer solutions. But they weren’t wrong, Editorial Board writes

If Utah’s water-saving measures are to be effective in face of drought, we need more action ASAP.

(HBO) Utah bore the brunt of John Oliver's jabs in Sunday's edition of "Last Week Tonight."

So it seems that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is feeling a bit put upon by some big national media outfits which, in his view, have treated his state unfairly in their coverage of the prolonged drought and our state’s response to it.

Governor, we feel your pain.

One thing that public officials and journalists have in common is a sense of resentment when journalists or television producers parachute in from New York or Washington and discover a problem that the locals, in government and in the press, have long been aware of.

So the series of Twitter posts Cox launched Tuesday, critiquing some recent work by The New York Times and the HBO program “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” wins some sympathy from the editorial board at your favorite Utah news organization.

Cox, of course, is always happy to promote positive coverage for himself or his state in the national media, bragging about how the country is taking note of “the Utah Way.”

But last week the governor took issue with doomsday reporting from The Times and a 20-minute screed by Oliver (which was genuinely hilarious) because both went on at some length about the impact of the ongoing drought without much in the way of offering reasonable solutions or giving any credit for actions Utah has taken.

The governor has a point.

The last session of the Utah Legislature, (a body not widely known for environmental awareness), produced a handful of useful bills that will put millions of dollars toward efforts to ease the drought’s effects. The most important could be a measure that ended a century of use-it-or-use-it water laws.

The old law pressed the holders of water rights to use their allocations, often to grow water-thirsty crops such as alfalfa, or risk losing the rights. Now, under the provisions of HB33, farmers can let more of that water flow downstream, recharging the Great Salt Lake and other surface and groundwater supplies, without waiving their right to future use.

The Times and HBO gave those accomplishments short shrift.

Meanwhile, journalists in Utah are doing more than more doomscrolling. The Salt Lake Tribune has the Innovation Lab, devoted to reporting on solutions, not just problems. The Tribune is also one of 23 organizations that have created the Great Salt Lake Collaborative. That’s news organizations, schools, nonprofits and researchers that are looking at not only what’s wrong with the lake, but, very specifically and practically, what can be done about it.

That doesn’t mean that The Times and John Oliver didn’t raise some accurate and vital issues.

The impending disappearance of the Great Salt Lake is far more than an aesthetic or tourism challenge. The loss of an entire ecosystem would not only be devastating for wildlife; it also threatens to cover the Wasatch Front in a cloud of toxic dust that endangers not only the lives of all area residents but could, in a particularly vicious case of karma, ruin the economic value of all that water-sucking development.

Oliver rightly pointed out that growing so much alfalfa for animal feed — some 2 million tons a year in Utah alone — in such a dry climate makes no sense.

Making sport of Cox’s call for Utahns to unite in prayer in hopes of bringing more rain was an irresistible target for any current-events oriented comedian. It might also be an example of how the coastal media elite leaves many folks in the rest of the country feeling disrespected.

Still, the foul-mouthed God on Oliver’s program who told Utah that we couldn’t pray our way out of this wasn’t wrong. It will require human action, not divine intervention.

Human actions such as:

  • Using market pricing and metering so that water users — especially the irrigators of crops, parks and golf courses, who account for 70% of the state’s usage — bear the cost and have an incentive to use less. That means ending the use of property taxes, such as those soon to be increased by the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, to fund water projects in a way that hides the true cost to end-users.

  • Push the business and real estate communities, and the powerful and land-rich Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to grasp the catastrophic damage the drought and decline of the Great Salt Lake will do to their investments.

  • Abandon expensive and, ultimately, useless projects such as the Lake Powell pipeline.

  • Move aggressively to shift Utah and the West away from the fossil-fuel economy which has affected the global climate and exacerbated our drought. That’s a long-term rather than a short-term solution, but Utah is particularly well-placed to benefit, both as a producer of sustainable energy and as a beneficiary of reduced climate-changing chemicals. Which is all the more reason why it should have started yesterday.

We’ve taken some action. We need to take much more. And if it takes some out-of-towners to point that out, well, every little bit helps.