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Climates across the world are changing. In Utah, that’s meant prolonged drought, poor air quality and debates on how to best address it. In a week-long series, KUER looks at how Utah is dealing with the climate crisis and possible solutions.

A major ski resort in Wasatch County is still in the works. But is there enough water to support it?

An illustration depicting a ski lift on a mountain.
Renee Bright
With rising temperatures and prolonged droughts due to climate change, Utah State University Hydrologist Patrick Belmont said the state needs to be smarter about the way it develops going forward.

In a few years, guests at the Mayflower Mountain Resort will have an incredible view, overlooking the Jordanelle Reservoir in Wasatch County — if anything is left of it.

Right now, the development is mostly a big hole in the hillside, but state officials are really excited about it. In a promotional video, Senate President Stuart Adams gushed about how it will “increase the quality of life for people in Utah and all around the world.”

Meanwhile, Benjamin Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, said Utah needs it.

“These projects are big, they're complex, but the state of Utah is going to be there every step of the way to make sure that this gets done,” Hart said.

It’s being led by Utah’s Military Installation Development Authority, or MIDA, because part of the project is intended as a rest-and-relaxation experience for military personnel. Adams chairs that board, and Hart also serves on it as a non-voting member.

Eventually, the luxury ski resort will have multiple hotels, more than 1,000 residential units and commercial space that span over 6,000 acres.

“Everyone recognizes the enormity of the project that’s going on in the Jordanelle Basin,” said Mike Davis, Wasatch County’s liaison to MIDA.

Developing around water rights

With development comes a need for resources, and this year’s historic drought has thrown into question whether Utah has them.

This past summer, some towns — Oakley and Henefer in neighboring Summit County — made the decision to halt development. They were trying to figure out whether they would have enough water to support it.

In the case of the Mayflower Resort, though, the state is calling the shots.

The Mayflower project covers more than 6,000 acres of land in Wasatch County. It will include hotels, ski lifts and residential and commercial space.
Kurt Krieg
Extell Utah
The Mayflower project covers more than 6,000 acres of land in Wasatch County. It will include hotels, ski lifts and residential and commercial space.

Davis, who previously had a career as a water engineer, said the county has tried to be strategic with its planning for years, especially near the Jordanelle. So they created a special service district to stay on top of the area’s needs as the basin began to grow.

“The basic premise was if anybody wanted to develop, they had to first show that they had water rights sufficient to support that development,” he said.

Those rights allow the owner to take water from its natural source and use it in some beneficial way.

But it’s just a piece of paper. Davis said the Mayflower project is currently undergoing a process to determine if there’s the actual resources to back up those rights.

He said the water will come from the Ontario Drain Tunnel in the area. So, if and when the rights for the Mayflower are finally used, it’s the people who live downstream who could be impacted.

“It flows down the river and goes to Provo,” Davis said. “It's mainly the downstream users that have been using these water rights that may struggle a little bit when those free water rights have been pulled back.”

Will there be enough snow?

The drought has also prompted questions from locals about whether the Mayflower will even have enough snow for skiing.

Considering the trajectory of climate change, Utah State University Hydrologist Patrick Belmont said it’s probably not a great time to build a mega ski resort.

“Our snowpack has declined quite a bit already, and it's going to continue to decline for the foreseeable future,” Belmont said. “How much it declines depends on how quickly we get fossil fuels turned off. But the trend is not good.”

So instead, the resort will have to make snow. Davis said that would be a good use of the water that’s available. Since the artificial snow is heavier, it would stay on the hill longer.

“It melts even slower than natural snow,” he said. “That's actually somewhat of a benefit of controlling the water runoff to be able to use it later downstream.”

Davis said they’re pretty confident the project will have enough water because of how consistent the Ontario Drain Tunnel is as a source.

Balancing major projects with water resources

But it’s just one of the state’s major economic development projects.

There’s also the inland port in the northwest part of Salt Lake City. Groups like Stop the Polluting Port have set off alarm bells about how that development could impact Utah’s limited water resources.

Back in June, KUER asked Gov. Spencer Cox about the two projects and the state’s approach to development as Utah continues to struggle with water.

A photo of a sign pointing to a Mayflower construction office.
Emily Means
The Mayflower Mountain Resort in Wasatch County is under construction and won’t be ready for years. It sits just west of the Jordanelle Reservoir.

“We are a very pro-development state,” Cox said. “I'm not ashamed of that in any way.”

The governor said he recognizes the climate is changing, so the state will work with local governments to develop new water sources and storage, as well as promoting conservation efforts.

“That's how we prepare for the future, and that's how we prepare for the growth that will surely continue to come,” he said.

Belmont said elected officials have known Utah is a dry state for a very long time. The strategy so far has resulted in some long-term damages.

He said he doesn’t think the state should stop developing — it just needs to be smarter about it.

“We know what needs to be done, but there are some, I guess, selfish financial interests of some individuals that end up playing a disproportionate role in these bigger decisions that we make as a society,” he said. “I think that gets to the core of the problem.”

Still, he said it’s not too late to change course.

As for what’s next, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget said it will soon release a proposal to help coordinate water and land use policies.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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