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Opinion: ‘There is real danger to inaction’ — Gov. Spencer Cox speaks on surviving the drought

Utah has been in drought for 20 years, and we don’t see an end anytime soon. Utah lawmakers are taking action to save the Great Salt Lake and our reservoirs, but we need all Utahns to come together

SHARE Opinion: ‘There is real danger to inaction’ — Gov. Spencer Cox speaks on surviving the drought
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The sunset on the waters of the Great Salt Lake on Friday, June 10, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

With wildfires, sweltering summer temperatures and browning lawns, it’s understandable that water is on everyone’s mind. Our state finds itself in the grip of a prolonged drought facing serious water shortages. In fact, the Southwest is experiencing its driest period in 1,200 years

Utah and other Western states are entering uncharted territory. 

Water conservation is more important than ever, and we all have a role to play. That’s why I worked closely with the state Legislature this past session to allocate nearly $500 million to water infrastructure, planning and management, effectively changing 160 years of major water policy in Utah. 

These actions include a focus on agriculture, which currently accounts for about 75% of the state’s total water use. Fortunately, farmers and ranchers are ready to do their part to conserve. We changed a pioneer-era “use it or lose it” law to allow farmers to leave some of their water in streams without losing their water rights, and several new laws will help Utah’s farmers and ranchers update their irrigation systems, saving water while increasing crop yields. 

We’re also focused on saving the Great Salt Lake, an essential stop for 10 million migratory birds each year, an irreplaceable ecosystem and a key player in our economy. Last year, we signed legislation to create a $40 million trust to increase water for the Great Salt Lake and improve the lake’s upstream habitat, and we’re committed to doing more. 

The people who settled Utah’s arid mountain valleys and Western states knew the value of stored water to get us through dry years. With 100% of the state currently in drought and less water in our streams and reservoirs, Utah is now relying on stored water. Reservoirs are functioning as designed, but we don’t know how long the current drought — or how long our stored water — will last. 

While drought and dwindling supplies are a problem on almost every river in the West, the Colorado River has been hit especially hard. One-third of Utahns rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, and the Colorado River Basin is a vital source of both municipal and agricultural water for the state, supplying more than a quarter of all water used in the state. 

The prolonged drought and a changing climate have resulted in record low elevations at its two key reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The situation is dire. If Lake Powell drops another 50 feet, the Glenn Canyon Dam could move past the point at which it can generate electricity for the millions who rely on it. 

This crisis prompted the federal government last month to inform the seven Basin states to cut two- to four-million acre-feet of water to protect critical reservoir elevations. In the absence of action by the states, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation said she was prepared to act unilaterally to protect the system.

Fortunately, Utah anticipated some of these challenges and took action. Just a year ago, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams cosponsored legislation creating the Colorado River Authority of Utah, a state agency focused entirely on ensuring that Utah protects and develops its Colorado River system water, and helping the state live within its apportioned 23% of the supply available in the Upper Colorado River Basin. 

There is real danger to inaction. If we’re not at the table, the federal government and others will determine our water future without us. For example, to protect critical elevations at Lake Powell, the Bureau of Reclamation last year ordered the emergency release of 161,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa reservoirs and an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water was released from Flaming Gorge this year. 

More mandated releases can be expected — perhaps in greater amounts — especially if we do not develop our own solutions. 

While the Lower Basin states have consistently overused their share, Utah, like the other upper division states, has never used its full allocation of Colorado River water.

Provisional data shows that in 2021, drought and other climate factors reduced the amount of water available in the Upper Basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — from 4.5 million acre-feet to 3.5 million acre-feet the previous year. During that same time, water use in the Lower Basin — California, Arizona, Nevada (and Mexico) — was at nearly 10 million acre-feet. That’s a total use of nearly 13.5 million acre-feet in a year when the river produced an estimated 6.7 million acre-feet of flow. 

Clearly, much is happening and there is still much more to do. We can expect several more bills and funding requests on the Great Salt Lake and water conservation this upcoming legislative session. Every plausible solution should be considered, including better measurement, technological improvements, agriculture optimization and smarter water financing. 

Water scarcity in the West is a reality. We have been in drought for 20 years, with no apparent end in sight. But when faced with serious challenges in the past, Utahns have pulled together, sacrificed and met challenges head on. We will do it again. 

Additional action won’t be easy, or painless. But when it comes to weathering this extreme drought, I’m confident Utah is ready and willing to do its part. 

Gov. Spencer Cox is the 18th governor of the state of Utah.