Drought politics: Can Utah leaders inspire us to conserve water?

Mother Nature has been wreaking havoc with record heat and drought. How will Utah’s leaders respond?

For several years, Utah has been performing well as a state. Our economy has been strong with low unemployment and rapid growth. However, Mother Nature has been wreaking havoc with record heat and drought. The mixture of all these dynamics can only mean one thing — more political wrangling.

State and local officials are very concerned about water shortages both short term and long term. Do our leaders possess the will to make necessary hard decisions and also persuade the population to follow them?

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Pignanelli: “It’s a new normal and I really do think that global weirding is the best way to describe what we’re seeing.” — Katharine Hayhoe  

I unequivocally love hot Utah summers, even the current season. Despite this heated joy, a nasty cold fact exists. A native Utahn, I can testify the weather patterns are changing. Whether caused by manmade pollution, sunspots, natural cycles, cow flatulence or those dang aliens flying the UFOs, our local meteorology is evolving. The models are correctly predicting Utah will endure higher temperatures and more precipitation — but through rainfall and less snowpack. This dynamic, combined with a burgeoning population and economy, offers an unprecedented challenge.

Last week, House Speaker Brad Wilson submitted a well-crafted guest opinion to this paper explaining the drought dilemma. This is significant because the author is a true political warrior who consistently demonstrates a courageous tenacity to undertake tough issues (e.g. tax reform, water management).

Senate President Stuart Adams has quietly revealed creativity in developing financing of much-needed state projects in transportation, economic development, health and water resources. Gov. Spencer Cox has an amazing ability to make tough decisions while expressing bold statements to citizens that would normally irritate, but are thoughtfully accepted. This explains his high approval ratings across the political spectrum. 

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Therefore, Utah may have the best generals to commence overcoming the deepest threat since the Great Depression. There is no room for error as we must innovate and alter habits. Vision is not enough as leadership moves the population to do what they normally don’t want to do.

This is the essence of politics. I get to watch from my much-treasured patio while enjoying the weather.

Webb: My pastures are already dry. We had no run-off and the creek is already low. One of the worst droughts in Utah’s history is a cold-water-to-the-face wake-up call we need to change our lifestyles and make necessary investments to ensure Utah doesn’t run out of water for essential needs.

That means using drastically less water for lawns and flowers, while conserving water for trees, vegetable gardens, drinking and bathing. It means metering secondary water systems and using market forces (higher costs) to change consumer behavior and the notion that everyone must have a green lawn.

It also means a lot more efficiency and conservation in agriculture, where most of our water is consumed. And, yes, despite opposition from some environmentalists, it means additional water development to capture runoff in wet years. This crisis requires sacrifice and compromise from everyone.

All of this demands strong leadership, innovation and effective communication from our policymakers. It won’t be easy to change many decades of culture and attitudes about water. We essentially must value it a lot more, treat it as the precious and costly resource it really is. 

Beyond just curtailing water usage, what political mindset adaptations must Utahns make in order for us to survive this ordeal?

Pignanelli: One hundred and twenty years ago, most metropolitan areas were overwhelmed by horse waste, carcasses and disease. Residents responded by choosing the “environmental option” of newfangled petroleum powered vehicles. This illustrates perspectives change and judgment for past behavior is pointless.

If prompted by intelligent explanations, Utahns will support tough decisions and endure sacrifices. But we will not tolerate silly critiques. Success depends on no guilt trips and judgment-free planning.

Webb: If the experts are to be believed, we may never go back to the wet years, due to climate change. I don’t know if that’s true, and I’m not ready to concede that every big weather event, whether it’s extra hot or extra cold, or extra wet or extra dry, is the result of a warming climate and greenhouse gas emissions.

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However, the same measures that combat climate change also help clean up our air, conserve our water and keep it pure, and otherwise protect nature. Those are things we all can support whether we agree or disagree that climate change is the greatest threat to our planet’s future.

I believe we’re rapidly moving to ubiquitous clean energy and a healthier environment. But we should allow innovation and free market forces to prevail, not force the issue with onerous government regulation and market-disrupting subsidies that destroy the wealth that makes progress possible. 

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Is there any hope that proposed solutions to the drought and growth avoid partisan wrangling?

Pignanelli: The stakes are too high to allow party hacks from demonizing tough decisions and collaboration between politicians in solving problems.

Webb: If we can center the solutions on conserving the water we all need and improving air quality, not about global warming, then we can reach agreement.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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