Our Water, Our Future

07 November 2013
Published in Science and Society
Written by  Kim Schuske
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Our Water, Our Future Wikimedia Commons--Roger McLassus

Utah is the second driest state in the country and we use about 40% more water per person than neighboring states such as Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. With the climate changing and the population growing, water will not stretch as far in the future as it has in the past. To tackle this issue, Governor Herbert has asked a team of advisors to come up with a 50-year water strategy for the state that will include reducing consumption by 25% by 2025.

870 billion gallons of water are consumed in Utah each year for watering crops and lawns, to drink, cook and bathe. For now, Utah has enough water to satiate consumers and maintain plants and animals that rely on streams, lakes, and watersheds. But with an expected increase in temperature and a population set to double by 2060, the future of the state's water is uncertain.

"I think we all recognize that water is going to be one of the key issues for us going forward," says Alan Matheson, State Planning Coordinator and Environmental Policy Advisor to Governor Herbert. "As our population grows and as projections of water availability change, those states that are prepared and thinking ahead about water are going to succeed and those that don't are going to fail."

Governor Herbert has taken steps to make sure that Utah is one of the states that will be prepared. He has tasked a group of 38 people to come up with a water strategy for the state. They come from different backgrounds including water management, politics, conservation, agriculture, industry, academia, and there's one representative for Native Americans.

"As we looked at putting that team together, we recognized that there are hundreds of people in the state that certainly could participate and contribute meaningfully," Matheson continues. "We just had to get to a number that would be workable, we could manage and actually get something done."

Matheson says the group will gather information, reach out to the public, and explore a range of policy options. At the end of the year they will develop a set of recommendations for what the state strategy should look like.

Getting there won't be easy. The Governor's team took a listening tour across the state over the Summer, visiting eight different locations and giving people a chance to voice their water concerns and priorities in person and on-line. They received 800 comments that illustrate the conflicting opinions around the state about how water should be managed in the future.

Here are a few from the Salt Lake City meeting:

"Conservation should be the primary solution to our growing water needs rather than resorting to major water projects."

"We need every drop of the Colorado River Basin water for drinking and for food production. There is no good reason to fund an oil shale development, where the world is already awash in oil."

"Conservation with reuse and recycling alone cannot meet the needs of our doubling population, substantial water supplies need to be developed."

"So why does Utah specifically use so much water? One of the reasons is that Utahns don't in fact pay for water directly. Instead water in Utah is subsidized or paid for in property taxes."

"Two things, I want to see water in our streams, sufficient water to support a healthy aquatic environment. And I want access to those streams wherever they are so ordinary citizens like me can enjoy recreation on them."

"Kentucky Bluegrass probably belongs in Kentucky."

"Utah farmers and ranchers are producing just over 1.3 billion dollars each year in farm sales, contributing 15 billion dollars in Utah economic activity."

Steve Erickson, a conservationist with the Great Basin Water Network and a member of the water advisory team, knows their job won't be easy. "It's going to be testy and contentious I'm sure. Hopefully we can all cooperate and try to arrive at some compromises that will be required," he says. "There likely will be some folks who want to draw lines in the sand and that remains to be seen how that will play out. The issues of water are always difficult, there's not going to be a simple answer to any of this."

Erickson says he personally is trying to set aside some of his biases in order to work towards a compromise. He sees his role as a liaison for others in the conservation community so their concerns get addressed and their suggestions get reviewed. "We're going to have to determine a means to protect the environment, to value water in place for the environment itself. Currently under the way the western water law is structured, the environment doesn't have a water right," Erickson says.

Water rights are allocated based on providing a beneficial use and under current law, leaving water in place to benefit the environment is not one of those uses. If the laws were changed to legally provide rights for the environment that could leave fewer rights for other applications, such as agriculture, which currently uses 80% of the water in Utah. This is just one of many contentious issues that the team will have to navigate.

Water conservation, the likely need for developing new water projects, and changing how water is priced, will all be part of the discussion, says Matheson. "We really have a stewardship duty to those that follow, to make sure we're not breaking the bank in committing ourselves to significant infrastructure projects, and we're not drying up our streams. And that's a tough balance, but it's something we simply have to do."

Water is just one of many issues facing the state. Others include air quality, transportation, energy, and jobs. Matheson says all of these issues are part of an umbrella process called 'Your Utah. Your Future.". Each issue will be studied individually and collectively with the difficult goal of maintaining Utah's economic health while also preserving a high quality of life for people in the state.

In the coming year, Explore Utah Science will be producing a five-part series on research efforts dedicated to maintaining and improving water sustainability in Utah. The series is made possible with support from iUTAH, a National Science Foundation-funded statewide research consortium.

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