Utah is known for its beautiful mountains, wildlife, national parks, state parks and much more. Lately, Utah’s persistent drought and the impacts it has had on the Great Salt Lake levels have dominated the headlines. Those of us who live in this beautiful state all benefit from the ecosystem services provided by our healthy forests and rangelands.

However, to continue to benefit from the ecosystem, Utahns need to start thinking holistically about the consequences the drought brings and that our actions perpetuate.

Utah’s water management is and needs to be more than just reducing the amount of water used for lawns — which is still very important and needs to be done. Well-managed forests reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and help boost forest ecosystem benefits, especially those related to water. Through active management of our watersheds, biological diversity is improved, wildlife populations thrive and entire ecosystems become more resilient.

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According to the U.S. Drought Monitor Map, in January 2021, 68.56% of Utah was in “Exceptional” drought, the worst category. As of July 2022, most of the state (83.03%) was in “Extreme” or “Exceptional” drought ­— the two worst categories. With hot weather in the forecast, conditions could worsen over the summer. With approximately 71% of the State of Utah consisting of public lands that provide food, water, energy, minerals and other essential resources, water quality and quantity are becoming increasingly important as the statewide population increases.

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Healthy watersheds — areas that channel rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, rivers and outflow points — are irreplaceable natural systems that collect, store and transport water resources. By actively managing these watersheds, entire ecosystems become more resilient to disturbances like wildfire and drought. Therefore, when done well, active public land management is designed to increase high-quantity water supply, especially when water is needed urgently.

Collectively, we need to become better stewards of the natural resources that we depend on for our wellbeing and survival. Currently, about 4 billion people throughout the world are affected by water scarcity at least once in any given year; this number is projected to grow to 6 billion by 2050.

As Utah’s population grows and climate continues to change, more dependence is put on our many ecosystem services. As demand increases, so does the need for clean and reliable water supplies. In Utah, population growth is booming, making it vitally important to work together to stretch the water supply.

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Without proper active public lands management, the Utah outdoors we know and love are at risk. Understanding the holistic impact Utah’s persistent drought can bring to our entire ecosystem is the best way Utahn’s can start to change their habits. We all play a part, and we should each know our role in protecting our precious water supply.

As individuals, we need to make sure we’re conserving water in our homes and yards, and as a community we need to support active land management of our public lands and watersheds. Actively managing our public lands will provide greater value to everyone who benefits from their existence now and into the future.

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Rachel Shilton is a manager at the Utah Division of Water Resources. She is a professional engineer with over 20 years of practical experience in environmental and water fields.