Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said that last summer he took a bit of criticism after he asked residents — both religious and nonreligious — to pray or seek divine intervention for rainfall to counter the effects of the drought.

“To all those people who asked what are YOU going to do, this is the answer,” Cox said. “This is generational.”

Gov. Cox called on Utahns to pray for rain. Some criticized him. He responded
Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson ceremonially sign key water legislation at Jordanelle Reservoir in Wasatch County on Monday, April 18, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The “this” is the Utah Legislature’s passage of a dozen water-related bills and ensuing endorsement by Cox that transform them into law. The “this,” he added, is the unprecedented funding effort of nearly $450 million for water-related infrastructure, and lastly the “this” is the extensive amount of collaboration to “lift” a desire for change into actual action.

Against the backdrop of a half-full Jordanelle Reservoir, Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson participated in a Monday ceremonial signing of the water bills, with Cox musing that he knew for sure the bills and money this year significantly outpaced anything that been done in water law and funding in at least more than a decade and probably in state history.

Last year by mid-March, Cox had declared a state of emergency for Utah, and he said it is likely that some declaration will happen again as he huddles with water providers and agency leaders.

It’s grim.

Consider that 99% of Utah is in severe drought and 28 of Utah’s largest 45 reservoirs are below 55% of available capacity. Eight streams are flowing at record low conditions, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources.

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During the legislative session, there was significant action to help the Great Salt Lake, which reached its historic low last year and continues to shrink.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, worked to establish the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program, which creates a $40 million water trust to help the dwindling lake.

The measure, HB410, tasks the Utah Department of Natural Resources with undergoing a selection process for a conservation organization that will be in charge of the trust and award money for restoration in the Great Salt Lake watershed and the acquisition of water rights to benefit the lake.

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Rep. Joel Ferry’s HB33 is another significant piece of legislation that grew out of the session and designates, for the first time in the history of the state, the bed of the Great Salt Lake — essentially the lake itself — as a beneficial use for water rights. Ferry, R-Brigham City and a farmer himself, cobbled together a complicated compromise bill that allows farmers and other holders of water rights to lease those rights to the Utah Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands, which has oversight of the lake bed.

“This bill is one I would consider generationally one of the most important pieces of legislation that you will see,” he said. “This is a huge step forward, a huge lift, and one of the most important pieces of legislation we were able to accomplish this year.”

Like Cox, Ferry emphasized the critical factor of collaboration.

In terms of individual water use, one measure by a Utah County lawmaker will create a great opportunity for water saving measures. Sponsored by Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, HB242 provides $250 million in grants to fast track the metering of secondary water.

He noted the water savings achieved over time would be enough to fill Jordanelle Reservoir — or approximately 80,000 acre-feet.

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In those areas of Utah where meters have been installed to track use of secondary water, providers have found that consumption on a per-household basis has decreased by as much as 30%, and when compared against neighbors’ use, people become increasingly conscious about water savings.

Other water-related action taken by Utah this year include:

  • The nation’s first statewide turf buy back program in which homeowners will be compensated for the turf they rip out and replace with water-wise landscaping.
  • The requirement that general plans of cities and counties integrate land use planning with water as a consideration.
  • A study for the prioritization of water rights — who gets what and how much — during an extreme water shortage.

Cox and others stressed the need to do even more as Utah continues down this path of unprecedented drought.

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After the press event, Cox told the Deseret News that the drought has not taken controversial water development projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear River Development plan off the table.

Also in the midst of planning are potential new water storage projects in Utah.

“We have to work with the resources on the ground,” he said, but noted the paradox of having drought drive home the need for more water storage with the reality of less water available for storage.

“Our eyes are wide open,” he said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Rep. Val Peterson’s last name as Iverson.