Developing water policy is often contentious and results in debate because of competing demands and values placed on our limited water resource. These values include security of local food production, sustaining rural Utah economies and communities, open space in increasingly urbanized areas, improved capacity for both drought management and flood control and other ecosystem services such as providing wildlife habitat and buffering wetlands and other critical lands from impacts of urban development.
Finding the best balance between water used for agriculture and related ecosystem services on one hand and water demands for other uses on the other is one of Utah’s key water policy issues. In 2013, Governor Herbert invited a group of stakeholders with extensive backgrounds in various aspects of water and with a diverse set of perspectives to develop a set of recommendations as part of a 50-year Water Strategy Plan.
In July 2017, the Water Strategy Plan was completed and submitted to Governor Herbert. Within that report, it’s recommended that basin-level councils be created to help farmers optimize regional water supplies, conserve in-stream flows and enhance water quality.
A primary goal of these local water basin councils would be to create systems from which farmers can benefit when they reduce diversion and consumption of water or protect water quality. Authors of the Water Strategy Plan felt that the key principles guiding the local water basin councils would: a) apply sound science; b) measure gains at the basin level; c) address farm economics at the individual farm and community level; d) work within existing agricultural markets or encourage market behaviors that financially reward improved farm and ranch practices; e) recognize established water rights; and f) create meaningful benefits for farmers to optimize water use and protect water quality.
Carefully guided and administered local water basin councils may create benefits to not only Utah farmers and ranchers, but also to other users of water. Such benefits might include improved storage patterns, lower nutrient and salinity concentrations and greater water availability. For example, municipal water suppliers that receive the benefits of improved water supplies can, in turn, help finance system improvements that benefit all stakeholders, including agriculture.
Creating local water basin councils, or “bottom-up” planning processes, would likely require Utah legislative authority. Councils would advise local water users, local governments and state agencies, but have no separate regulatory authority. The boundary of local water basin councils would, most likely, be natural watersheds. Council members may represent a variety of interests, including: agriculture, industry, environment, public, municipalities, business, water districts, river authorities, water utilities, counties, groundwater management districts and power generation. Local water basin councils would conduct all functions during open meetings in an open and participatory manner.
Possible topics for the local water basin council to discuss and advise may include: quantifying current and projected population and water demand, evaluating and quantifying current water supplies, identifying surpluses and needs, evaluating water management and impacts to strategies, developing drought responses and recommendations, recommending regulatory, administrative and legislative changes and financing options for water projects.
Utah faces the daunting task of providing water for a population that is projected to nearly double by 2060 while maintaining farms and industries and healthy rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers. The challenge is magnified by climate change theories and increased opposition by environmental interests. Recommended local water basin councils are intended to advance policy dialogue and collaborative decision-making.