Joining Forces in the Search for Utah's Water Future
Scott Jones steers a snowmobile into the T.W. Daniel Experimental Forest deep in the mountains above Logan. He’s a soils physicist at Utah State University, and he’s studying how forests use and store water.
“Understanding the processes up here will help us anticipate what’s happening in the valleys and streams,” he says.
Jones and a colleague measure water the snowpack’s holding after Utah’s warmest and driest winter on record. Data like this can help water managers plan for the future.
Comparing the water Utah can count on with the water it needs has been an obsession since settlers arrived. And now it’s a big factor in the water challenges ahead of us, and some say it’s essential for disparate groups to share their best ideas to find meaningful solutions.
Historian Lyman Hafen recalls how pioneers labored in Washington County to supply water to the growing population. Hafen says their values are embodied in a St. George ordinance.
"If any water taker shall waste water or allow it to be wasted by negligence….”
Wasting water back then, he says, could mean a stiff $25 fine or time behind bars.
"So that gives you an idea of how precious water was in 1909 and that conservation ethic,” he says. “You could go to jail for 25 days for having a leaky faucet. There are the two aspects of the culture that we now have, and the one keeps us developing more and more water. But the part of the culture that hasn’t carried through as much is that we should be conserving.”
Utah finds itself at a similar crossroads today. The state’s population of 3 million is expected to double by 2040, and there’s no more water today than there was when pioneers arrived.
It was just this week that lawmakers heard state auditors explain that it's hard to plan for that growth because basic data on supplies and demands are riddled with errors. Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Brian King called for action.
“We’ve got to make decisions about how much money we’re going to plow into – as a legislature, how much money we’re going to allocate and budget and raise from taxpayer funds – for those kinds of infrastructure projects," he said. "I just want to make the best decisions possible.”
Climate change is an even bigger question mark for Utah’s water. Rob Gillies, director of the Utah Climate Center at USU, also serves on the Gov. Gary Herbert’s multidisciplinary Water Strategy Advisory Team. As it drafts a master water to-do list for the next half-century, the group has discussed conservation and technology, Gillies says.
“But then it was noted that actually the greatest risk for the state is water resources,” he recalls, “and the greatest component of that risk is climate change.”
The Climate Center has pointed out that Utah is already warming twice as fast as the global average, and studies suggest the state's likely to get hotter. But Gillies says the trend for water is unforeseeable. Wilder fluctuations between flooding and longer, deeper droughts are making it impossible to plan ahead.
Pat Mulroy considers questions like these for the Brookings Mountain West think tank and the World Economic Council’s water committee. And climate change figures big among her worries.
“It is definitely a game changer,” she says. “I think it's a game changer in how we use water, and I think it's a game changer in how we manage water, and I think it's going to redefine relationships.”
Mulroy says interest groups, like farmers, environmentalists and water managers have to stop fighting one another over water. So do the seven Colorado River states. She predicts there will be a day when Utah finds itself in a drought as deep as California’s or a water shortage as severe as Nevada’s thanks to climate change.
“There is real strength in strategic partnerships,” she says. “You help buffet against each other's weaknesses and exposures, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Back when she was water boss for southern Nevada, Mulroy gained worldwide recognition for making water-wise practices routine. She persuaded homeowners to rip out their lawns and golf courses to keep their turf green with gray water. She established a water-banking program with Arizona. Mulroy says Utah is behind the times when it comes to proactive efforts like these.
“My only advice to Utah is they need to become more actively engaged in helping resolve issues as they're arising in the basin and not view themselves as separatists,” she says.
She points to Denver’s efforts to work with farmers to protect environmental funding for Utah and the three other states in the upper-Colorado River Basin. Utah’s politicians, cities and farmers, she says, are AWOL on efforts like these.
“You know, you are part of a larger region," she says. "You want your neighbors to be supportive of you-you need to be standing with your neighbors when your neighbors need you.”
As big-picture issues like these are on the table elsewhere, Utah leaders have been sending mixed messages about the need for change. Not one of the state’s conservation plans for 11 water basins mentions climate change. And efforts are just beginning to stop groundwater mining that’s causing fissures and to deal with the problem of subsidence in Utah farmlands even though the problem has been around for decades.
Back up in the mountains east of Logan, Scott Jones and his team monitor the remote research sites, looking for clues about what’s ahead.
“The data,” says the soils scientist, “is probably going to take longer in order to develop an answer that is meaningful to the citizens and meaningful in terms of the science.”
Meanwhile, Jones says it probably will be years before his research has something definitive to say about Utah’s water.