Drought, wildfires, pollution: How should Utah tackle its biggest problems? Using ‘evidence,’ Gov. Cox says

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox doesn't view impacts from land, water and air environmental issues as partisan issues.

It's easy to point to anywhere on the map — especially in the West — and find somewhere impacted by extreme heat, drought, wildfires or poor air quality. It doesn't matter who is in charge, everyone is impacted in some way.

"These are not Republican issues or Democrat issues, these are human issues and they are certainly Western issues," the governor said while standing in a room full of Utah State University researchers at the Gallivan Center on Tuesday.

And as humans come together — Republicans and Democrats alike — to craft policy to address these issues, Cox said, it's important for leaders to focus on science and evidence, wherever it takes researchers and policymakers. He said the evidence should be the guiding factor in future policy.

"We can never be afraid to let the evidence guide us. That's, I think, a huge mistake that we've made," Cox said. "Sometimes the evidence surprises us. Sometimes it's counter to what we've expected and that's to be encouraged. Sometimes we should challenge the science and challenge the evidence and make sure we're getting the right answers — but we should never be afraid to seek those answers and the policy direction that they will lead us."

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Cox made his remarks at an event celebrating the creation of the new Janet Quinney Lawson Institute of Land, Water and Air at Utah State University. Wayne Niederhauser, chairman of the USU board of trustees and former Utah Senate president, said the institute aims to bring together faculty who study issues related to land and water use, as well as air quality.

In short, the new institute will help provide the evidence that can be used toward future policymaking decisions. The Janet Quinney Lawson Foundation, run by Lawson's family, provided a $7 million donation toward the naming of the institute in October, which Niederhauser said also provided an endowment for the institute to function.

About 82% of USU faculty researchers represent areas of land, water and air, according to the university. Three dozen researchers have participated in Utah researcher partnerships.

During Tuesday's event, USU President Noelle Cockett noted that the three areas of study aren't just interconnected but cover a wide range of individual topics. She read off a list of some areas of study the nearly 140 USU faculty researchers cover that count toward land, water and air, such as wildlife resource researchers, rain specialists, turfgrass scientists, biogeochemists, and water and environmental engineers.

That figure doesn't include the many USU Extension experts that cover fields within the three main topics, and it doesn't include the many students aiding the effort, as well, she added.

The new institute got to work right away, publishing Tuesday the "2021 Report to the Governor on Utah's Land, Water and Air." The 52-page document written by 45 authors is the inaugural report to the Utah Governor's Office regarding the environmental challenges that Utah leaders will have to face now and in the coming decades.

It's a report that will be provided to the governor's office every year, providing a snapshot of various issues tied to the three topics.

Cockett said the research now and in future years will have the ability to provide context to current issues, "zoom in on critical details" and "illuminate the bigger picture" by showing how small events relate to ongoing trends. She explained that the first report is intentionally broad to cover all the evidence that's currently known about 25 of the "immediate and emerging issues" within the state's landscapes.

It's also written in a way that's easy to read on purpose. The authors were told to "encapsulate entire disciplines into a single-page summary of 200 words or less," Cockett said.

"I believe this report, as well as many other USU research projects beyond its scope, will help drive effective and informed decision-making in Utah," Cockett said. "But even more, I hope all Utahns — individuals, families, groups, classes, student projects, the media — access this report and consider its messages."

Inside the first report

The report notes changing climates and growth tend to be the biggest hurdles for Utah in the future. Not only have drought, wildfire and poor air quality become key issues, Utah led the nation with 18.4% population growth in the past decade, according to the 2020 census. Tuesday's report notes that the state's population has increased by over 40% in the past two decades.

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There are more people in essentially the same amount of space, which leads to new issues that will need to be addressed. Experts add there are also no signs that growth will slow down anytime soon, which exacerbates future issues.

"Current growth trends are projected to continue, accelerate and will have profound impacts on the state," the report states. "Although growth brings many benefits to the state, negative impacts of development include decreasing air quality, decreasing water quality and loss of animal habitat. Further research into specific trends, drivers of these patterns and potential strategies to align development with citizen goals is needed to better address future challenges."

It also may mean state and national parks will become even more crowded than the record-breaking numbers experienced over the past two years, added Jordan Smith, the director of USU's Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism and one of the 45 authors of the report.

Drought has been the common environmental theme of the past 20 years while population growth existed. The authors point out that Utahns have already seen some of this with record-low streamflow, lake and reservoir levels.

A dead fish out of water at Otter Creek Reservoir in Piute County during the summer of 2021. Water levels dropped below under 20% at the reservoir this year as a result of the drought.
A dead fish out of water at Otter Creek Reservoir in Piute County during the summer of 2021. Water levels dropped below under 20% at the reservoir this year as a result of the drought. | Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

The report also points to trends that show a diminishing snowpack as a result of later states to the snow season and early ends, as well. That factors in Utah's water supply because a vast majority of the state's water comes from snowpack runoff in the spring.

"These changes can affect our water availability, our inversions and related air quality, and our crops and livestock," Cockett said, adding that air quality also factors in causing droughts as an example of how all the topics are interconnected.

Organizers also played a video during Tuesday's event that featured a bipartisan group of local and state representatives from various parts of Utah who all agree that decisions tied to land, water and air are vital for Utahns.

Niederhauser said he really didn't fully realize the importance of Utah's population growth projections on the state's landscape and infrastructure until 2013. He pointed to future projections that call for over 6 million residents in the state over the next few decades as a reason that the new USU institute and its yearly report will matter.

"Maybe the demographers will be wrong, but they have been right in the past. Just think about what that feels like — what will that look like?" he said. "This institute ... is going to be critical for us."

What can be done today

Changing technologies to cleaner fuels or zero-emission sources is one of the things Utahns can do today to help with air quality, said Randy Martin, a professor specializing in quality and air pollution at Utah State University. Martin and three other authors of the report attended Tuesday's event for a panel discussion about the report. The panel discussion ended with tips on what Utahns can do today to help address land, water and air issues.

"We're becoming aware that we're becoming a part of the problem," he said. "As far as air quality, we all contribute. We all drive our cars, we all have our houses — in Utah, mobile sources, our cars, are roughly 50% of our total emissions so minimizing what you do, individually, you're going to contribute to the solution of that problem."

Four Utah State University faculty researchers and co-authors of the “2021 Report to the Governor on Utah’s Land, Water and Air” speak during a panel discussion at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City Tuesday.
Four Utah State University faculty researchers and co-authors of the “2021 Report to the Governor on Utah’s Land, Water and Air” speak during a panel discussion at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. | Carter Williams, KSL.com
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Martin added that Utahns don't need to get a brand-new electric or hybrid vehicle today or tomorrow but that Utahns look at that option the next time they need to buy a new car. They can also keep their vehicles at "optimal operating conditions," meaning they change their oil frequently and fix any issues related to their vehicle's engine. People can also carpool or use public transportation to bring the number of vehicles off the road.

Jim Lutz, an associate professor of wildland resources at USU, said government entities can manage public lands better to reduce wildfire risk, especially in areas most vulnerable to fires. Kelly Kopp, the director of USU's Center for Water Efficient Landscaping, pointed out that every resident is eligible for a smart irrigation controller that can save up to 50% of the water applied at urban landscapes.

The measure is important because nearly the entire state remains in severe drought or worse; Cox said Tuesday that Utah's reservoirs are currently at 49% capacity statewide, as well.

"That could immediately save a lot of water in the municipal and industrial sector," Kopp said.

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