Utah’s diverse landscape, from impressive mountain vistas to stunning red rock formations, sets the stage for a wide range of recreation opportunities and economic advantages. Perhaps less acknowledged but more important, though, is how Utah’s unique topography provides life-sustaining water for communities, agriculture, wildlife, and more.

Well-positioned mountains capture the bulk of Utah’s annual precipitation, which is stored in the form of snow. This moisture then supplies the mountain streams and rivers that fill reservoirs. Precipitation also recharges the groundwater in wells and springs. These water sources supply the year-round running water in Utahns’ faucets and agricultural pipes, allowing for abundant life in an otherwise arid climate.

Utah’s vitality and prosperity depend on a reliable supply of high-quality water. Utah was fortunate to experience record-breaking snowfall last winter. Unfortunately, one good water year cannot reverse 20 years of below-average precipitation. Drought has threatened the future of Utah’s water supply and consistent population growth adds to this strain.

State and local leaders recognize the need to plan for the challenges that come with growth—including managing Utah’s precious water supply— and welcome suggestions and input from the public through the “Guiding Our Growth” survey.

Water: It’s Everyone’s Issue

Water sustains nearly everything Utahns value, including families, food production, community prosperity, natural habitats, wildlife, recreation, and energy production. All of these uses compete for the state’s finite water supply.

“Utah is one of the driest states in the nation and one of the fastest growing,” said Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. “The decisions we make today will impact our water use patterns for decades to come. By using less water, we can increase our resiliency to drought conditions and have the water necessary to preserve Utah’s unique way of life for our kids, grandkids, and future neighbors.” 

And it’s not just water supply that’s at stake. Water scarcity can impact air quality, too. For instance, as water levels in the Great Salt Lake decrease, more of the lake bed is exposed and more dust enters the environment, negatively affecting air quality and reducing the amount of lake-effect snow. 

Utah’s leaders have prioritized addressing these challenges. Multiple state agencies and partners worked together to analyze Utah’s current water situation and identified a number of potential solutions, which are outlined in ”Utah’s Coordinated Action Plan for Water.”

An overarching theme of this Coordinated Action Plan is the need for a collaborative effort to preserve and sustain Utah’s water supply. Local planning plays an important role in water management, and coordination between local jurisdictions and state agencies helps ensure every Utah community has enough water supply and infrastructure to serve current and future residents and businesses.

Because every Utahn consumes water, every Utahn should be invested in ensuring Utah’s water remains clean and accessible. 

Housing and Water: The Great Connection

Because it is such a great place to live, Utah continues to grow, increasing the demand for water as well as new housing, businesses, and roads. These new structures can harden the landscape and obstruct the natural water cycle, preventing water from being absorbed and filtered by soil. Instead, water flows into storm drains, picking up pollutants along the way. 

Preparing communities for growth and protecting water quality at the same time is as complex as it is important. 

Effective water conservation starts with integrating land use and water planning. Sixty percent of Utah’s residential water use occurs outdoors, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. As lot sizes and irrigated yard spaces decrease, so does per capita water consumption. More compact development, including multi-family housing, means more indoor water use per acre, but less outdoor water use. 

“While indoor water conservation is important, Utah stands to make the biggest gains in water conservation efforts through modified outdoor water use,” said Scott Paxman, general manager and CEO of Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. “This should include residential and commercial landscaping changes and agricultural water optimization.”

Policy considerations play an important role. Should community leaders impose restrictions to discourage overwatering? Should low-water-use landscaping be required in all new residential and commercial areas? How much should cities incentivize existing homeowners to retrofit yards with xeriscaping through turf buy-back programs, tax credits, or rebates? Would halting new home construction altogether ensure adequate future water supply? And would the home price increases resulting from such decisions be justified?

How Utahns pay for their water also impacts usage. Utah has some of the lowest water and sewer prices in the nation. This affordability can discourage conscientious water use. Implementing transparent, tiered-rate water billing that increases the price per gallon when users consume more than a certain amount could reduce water use and enable ongoing investment in quality water infrastructure.

Utah’s aging water infrastructure is another worrisome factor. It is important to maintain and protect the existing infrastructure that, for decades, has supported Utahns during dry spells and delivered water to areas of growth. Fiscally sound and sustainable management of vital infrastructure, like pipelines, wells, treatment facilities, and reservoirs, should also include the consideration of aging infrastructure replacement. 

Preserving Utah’s Water and its Agriculture

Water conservation efforts would not be complete without the involvement of Utah’s farmers and ranchers. Agriculture makes up 75 percent of Utah’s diverted water usage. In other words, Utah farmers and ranchers use the majority of water that is removed from natural systems for purposes like irrigation. Farming and ranching lifestyle is an important part of Utah’s heritage and continues to play a critical role in many Utah communities, and, like every other water user, farmers and ranchers should strive to use water more efficiently.

“Agriculture will always be critical to Utah’s food security,” said Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. “Utah’s agriculture industry is at the core of what makes the state a desirable place to live. It is imperative that agriculture be a part of the conversations on how we can continue to be the best stewards of our state’s water and other natural resources.”

Farmers, ranchers, and elected officials must ask tough questions and balance a variety of factors. Does it make sense to invest in optimized agricultural irrigation tools, such as innovative irrigation and monitoring systems, which could enable farmers to produce the same or more food while using less water? Would the benefits of canal lining, surge irrigation, or subsurface drip irrigation outweigh the costs? Should Utah leaders adopt temporary water-leasing policies or make other adjustments to Utah water law? Under SB277 passed during the 2023 legislative session, agricultural producers participating in the Agricultural Water Optimization Program will have the opportunity to consult with the Division of Water Rights when considering changes to their irrigation practices, helping them better document saved water and protect water rights. 

Guiding Our Growth

Making wise choices about water is important to Utah’s long-term wellbeing regardless of whether it’s a drought year. State and local leaders are committed to looking ahead, proactively gathering public input, and planning for the future. That’s what “Guiding Our Growth” looks like. It’s having a statewide conversation about the impacts of Utah’s population growth and working together to preserve Utah’s unique quality of life.

 * Take the survey to be entered to win one of four $250 Amazon or Home Depot gift cards or other prizes like national/state park passes, Lagoon tickets, and more! For sweepstakes rules, go to https://envisionutah.org/official-sweepstake-rules-gog.