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Water Audit: Faulty Data Informs Expensive Decisions

Water managers have a chart that shows Utah’s water demands will outstrip supplies by 2040 and say it shows why the state should start expensive water development projects now.

The Legislature’s auditors spent more than a year basically fact-checking that chart, and at a hearing Tuesday they informed lawmakers important decisions about Utah’s water are being made with unreliable data.

James Behunin of the Legislative Auditor General’s office told lawmakers that the information built into it is deeply flawed.

“They need to have better data,” he said. “You can’t manage what you do not measure.”

Mike Styler, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing the two water agencies in his department welcome the suggestions for cleaning up Utah’s water data. But he also flagged the possibility of public backlash about some changes, like rate hikes intended to spur conservation.

“You know,” he began, “that’s quite a – that’s saying, ‘Folks, we want you to consider changing your way of life’.”

Complaints by the Utah Rivers Council triggered the performance review, and Utah Rivers Executive Director Zach Frankel said the audit’s findings validate what conservationists have been saying for years: that state agencies are using bad math and junk data at consumers’ expense to advance the water industry.

“The only thing they care about,” he said after the hearing, “has been to scare the public into spending billions of dollars for unnecessary water projects like Bear River and Lake Powell Pipeline.”

State water officials said they’re already implementing the auditors’ suggestions. 

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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