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Utah takes long view on water policy

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) is taking the long view on water planning (AP/Rick Bowmer) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) is taking the long view on water planning. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

In 1847, as they made their way West, Mormon settlers led by Brigham Young consulted with Jim Bridger, the famed explorer of the unsettled American West. Bridger was so skeptical that the Mormons could settle the harsh, desolate Salt Lake Basin that he reportedly offered $1,000 for the first bushel of corn grown in the valley.

Bridger had a point: Today, Utah is the second-driest state in the union, after Nevada, which means it must ration its water between agricultural use and urban household demands. And the problem of how to manage a finite resource like water is only going to become more perplexing, given the explosive growth Utah expects over the next several decades.

“Growth is in our future. The only limiting factor, I’ve said, to growth in Utah is water. It’s our life blood,” Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said in an interview.

Herbert this week convened a 38-member team of community activists, water district managers, water experts from outside interest groups and state and federal policymakers to begin charting Utah’s water strategy for the next 50 years. It’s an effort, Herbert said, to manage growth and the shifting balance of a state where urban water usage will siphon water away from agriculture.

“As growth occurs, what happens is the farms and ranches end up getting subdivided,” he said.

Water management is a critical challenge facing every state west of the Rockies. And the 20th century model — getting water from the next river over, or digging another well — is obsolete in the 21st century, as states grow and groundwater supplies dry up.

“What the West is facing, and frankly what everyone is facing, is growing competition for limited resources. We have a fixed amount of water, and of course the West has always been drier than the East,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a Western think tank based in Oakland, Calif. “There’s no new water. Increasingly, the water that’s provided by nature is spoken for.”

The main water source for Western states, the Colorado River, has been heavily rationed since 1922, when seven states agreed on allocating the water between them. The U.S. signed a treaty with Mexico guaranteeing a certain amount of the river would cross the international border. And the water is so heavily used that, in the average year, none of it reaches the Gulf of California.

California and Colorado get the greatest apportionment of Colorado river water, while Utah and Arizona each get more than 11 percent. Mexico is guaranteed the final 9 percent, with the rest going to Nevada, Wyoming and New Mexico.

Herbert said managing the water Utah is allowed will determine whether the state can grow in a smart way. A state-run Slow The Flow campaign aims to reduce consumption by 25 percent by 2025, and Utah is even investigating new types of grass they can plant that requires less water to stay alive. Herbert said the state will consider the price of water consumers use, in order to provide a financial incentive to conserve.

Douglas Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School, said Utah will be hit harder than most states by climate change, which will reduce snowpack and stream flow.

“Ultimately, most western states are looking at a future where water demands will be higher, water supplies will be lower, and conflicts between interests will be magnified,” Kenney said in an e-mail. “So part of the challenge is technical (e.g., finding ways to augment supplies or increase efficiencies), but part of the challenge is also about making sure there are systems in place to make decisions, resolve conflicts, and provide incentives for cooperative problem-solving.”

Planning for the future, like Utah is doing, gives policymakers the ability to avoid disruption down the road, Kenney said.

And that disruption is exactly what Herbert says he hopes to avoid. Utahns “don’t want to look like Arizona, no offense to Arizona. But having sand, dirt and cactus as your landscape is not attractive to the people of Utah,” Herbert said.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.



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