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Opinion: This is how we solve Utah’s land, water and air problems

Utah has a robust history of success in solving big problems. In its early years, the state adapted unique, evidence-based agricultural practices to our desert landscape.

Saltair on the shores of the Great Salt Lake near Magna.
Saltair on the shores of the Great Salt Lake near Magna is pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. The lake’s level is at its lowest in recorded history — a problem state leaders hope to tackle.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It’s no secret Utah is one of the fastest-growing states in the U.S. With that growth, we have seen tremendous economic progress and thriving communities. But Utah’s prosperity depends on the health of our natural resources, specifically land, water and air.

Unfortunately, much of Utah has been in prolonged drought for the last decade. Wildfires threaten the state’s forests. Urban development has resulted in the loss of wildlands and farmlands. Annual snowpacks are declining, and projections show our water demand will exceed our supply in the next two decades. The Great Salt Lake’s shrinking shoreline has negatively impacted Utah’s wildlife, industry, air quality and snowpack. And Utah has the nation’s largest emissions of hazardous air pollutants.

These are the issues that keep us up at night.

The quality of our air and water, the current drought and the changes in land use that come alongside a fast-growing population have led us to ask a critical question.

How do we maintain the quality of life Utahns have enjoyed for generations?

The answers? Science. Collaboration. And hard work.

We know that evidence-based research, problem-solving and partnerships are critical in Utah. It has been our shared vision for the past three years to better organize and communicate land, water and air research to help develop strategies for our sustainable growth and well-being.

On Tuesday, we’ll share two exciting milestones in that vision. First, USU will release its first report on land, water and air. The interdisciplinary summary will provide research-based analysis regarding Utah’s shared resources for Utah policymakers and other community members.

We’ll also celebrate a new and exciting partnership between USU and the Quinney Foundation, enabling the naming of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air at Utah State University.

USU is uniquely connected to Utah’s landscapes in that its faculty, staff, students and alumni are woven into the fabric of our statewide urban and rural communities. The university works collaboratively with the state of Utah, private industry and community leaders in establishing quality research and scientific study. The university’s land-grant mission is centered around just that — learning, discovery and engagement.

Our state’s land, water, and air issues seem challenging today, but we have a robust history of success in solving big problems. In fact, Utah used this approach in its early days to adapt agricultural practices to our desert landscape.

In 1911, John A. Widtsoe, then president of Utah State Agricultural College (later changed to USU), published a groundbreaking book that would become the definitive work on dry farming throughout the world.

Resulting partnerships among USU, farmers and the Legislature created broader implementation of the dry-farm industry and a more reliable source of food. More than one-third of the state’s agriculture acreage is now dry farm, and Widtsoe’s techniques have been adopted worldwide.

Widtsoe set the standard for how evidenced-based research can solve practical, critical problems in Utah, and he made sure to share his findings with people in the state who needed that knowledge.

A century later this story is still important.

As Utah’s governor and USU’s president, we share this commitment and responsibility. We know the good that comes from doing things together. We are at a critical juncture as we work to be a state where residents are happy, safe, healthy, and successful.

Please join us in working to tackle our most complex challenges and shape Utah’s future in innovative ways.

The more we know, the more we can do better.

Noelle E. Cockett is the president of Utah State University, where she has served in several academic and leadership positions since 1990. She has built a distinguished career in sheep genomics research and is an active researcher. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox grew up in rural Utah as part of a multi-generation farming family.