Utah Legislature Ignoring Climate Change Amid Ongoing Drought – The Daily Utah Chronicle

Kevin Cody

The effect of drought on campus with a view of the Marriott Library on July 24, 2021. (Photo by Kevin Cody | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

Utahans are increasingly aware of the dire consequences of the ongoing drought in the state, including the looming threat to the Great Salt Lake. But the concerns are largely satisfied by the inaction of the state government. Governor Spencer Cox’s call to pray for rain in June 2021 has drawn criticism from anyone seeking substantial action. Efforts to conserve water are the focus of Utah’s 2022 legislative session.

The community’s passion for preserving the Great Salt Lake and minimizing drought impacts must be reflected in the Utah State Legislature. Beyond water conservation, the legislature must begin to pave the way for Utah to focus on mitigating climate change through renewable energy.

community cry

Governor Cox declared a state of emergency in March 2021 when 90% of the state experienced extreme drought. He called on Utahns to conserve water individually, and they got the message. Salt Lake City and Sandy City saved 2.8 billion gallons of water in 2021 compared to last year. Water deliveries from the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy district decreased nearly 31% in August 2021 compared to August 2020.

After witnessing the apathy for the health and well-being of others during the pandemic, I felt skeptical that the community would care about the Utah drought. I assumed people would complain about government inaction until it required individual sacrifice. But our community has shown a willingness to make the effort.

The community clearly recognizes the importance of water conservation, yet only 4% of Utah’s water is used for indoor residential purposes. 82% goes to farms and ranches. House Speaker Brad Wilson agrees conservation efforts are not enough. Optimizing agricultural water use will be much more beneficial.

Legislative efforts

The Legislature deserves some credit for drafting several bills that will help Utah optimize its water allocation. House Bill 33 would encourage Utah agriculture to use instream flows, which conserve water. Senate Bill 89 would require water providers to adopt water conservation goals, and HB 157 aims to provide long-term funding to the Great Salt Lake. If passed, these bills will positively benefit Utah’s reservoirs and environment.

However, Cox’s 2023 budget proposal suggests drought coping strategies could do more harm than good. The budget includes an investment of almost half a billion dollars in infrastructure, planning and water management. When Cox unveiled the budget, he stressed the importance of water development projects such as the Bear River project. This project aims to divert the Bear River from the Great Salt Lake, effectively drying up the lake and threatening Utah’s economy, ecosystems, and health.

However, despite the public outcry, ongoing legislative scrutiny shows they have plenty of room for improvement.

Climate change

Our legislature’s emphasis on agricultural water conservation would yield better results than asking the community to take shorter showers, but that still falls short of a long-term solution. 95% of Utah’s water supply comes from snowfall. Utah’s latest drought update lists overall statewide storage at 52% capacity. This time in 2021, the reservoirs were at 62% capacity. The Great Salt Lake is currently 11 feet below where it should be. If our snowfall continues to decline at the current rate, no amount of individual water conservation will save us. Even optimizing water use by agriculture does not address the root of the problem: climate change.

Cox’s budget plan did not mention investing in renewable energy or sustainable agriculture. Nor is the lawmaker focusing on reducing carbon emissions. Although a new resolution, HCR 1, recognizes climate change as a threat, it also paves the way for Utah lawmakers to continue prioritizing the fossil fuel industry over the environment. The resolution promotes carbon sequestration, which involves capturing and storing carbon dioxide to prevent it from harming the atmosphere, which some environmental groups say prolongs reliance on fossil fuels.

Utah’s continued drought is climate change manifesting itself in very tangible ways. Every year our government mishandles climate change is another year of record snowfall.

Keep up the pace

Utah citizens rank climate change as a growing concern. Fifty-nine percent of Utahns support the gradual transition to renewable energy, according to a 2021 Colorado College poll. I’d like to see the legislature start reflecting that. Until then, I remain skeptical that their efforts will actually be rewarded.

Without community response to reduce water use and strong support to save the Great Salt Lake, the Utah State Legislature might not have gotten the message. Utahns need to think about the needs of their communities and communicate them to their representatives. In response to the drought, let’s keep the momentum going and implement ways for our community to live more sustainably.

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Teresa H. Sadler