January 29, 2019

SLTrib: As Utah dries up, lawmakers look for smarter ways to transfer, use — and not use — water

By Brian Maffly

Will Utah have sufficient water in an era of declining stream flows to support a population expected to double, strong agriculture, recreation economies and a healthy environment?

While that sounds like having your Diet Coke and drinking it, too, water policy honchos believe Utah can meet its future water needs, though not without developing new sources and improving the way water is currently used.

The use-it-or-lose-it foundation of Western water law promotes waste or at least suboptimal use of this most precious natural resource and is fraught with disincentives for conservation.

Several bills cued up for this legislative session seek to reduce Utahns’ notoriously profligate water use and to add flexibility to the ways water rights are administered. In general, lawmakers prefer addressing the water question with “market-based voluntary transactions” as opposed to regulatory “command and control” oversight.

A 'bank’ for liquid assets

At the forefront of this discussion is a resolution championed by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, to promote “water banking,” a program that enables growers to pause their water use without risk of forfeiting their right to the water. With agriculture accounting for 80 percent of use, banking could go along way to solving the state’s water woes.

The idea, which is already being tested on the Provo River and in Cache Valley, is to allow water that would otherwise be used for irrigation to remain in a waterway, where it would support in-stream flows and reach downstream reservoirs. Farmers who do that now can find themselves without water in the future because someone else might want to use that water.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s water strategy advisory team recently released recommendations that included developing a system to facilitate temporary water-right transfers through leases and contracts to supply competing users with water to meet short-term needs. Water banks could help implement such a recommendation, according to Iwamoto’s SJR1.

“This is something worth doing for the benefit of the state,” water attorney Steve Clyde told the Legislature’s Water Development Commission at its last meeting in November. “But we have to make sure these are valid water rights that are being banked, that people aren’t dealing with prior forfeited rights and paper rights and the speculators we have seen out there in the marketplace.”

Water banking is a critical piece of Utah’s strategy to ensure enough water remains in the Colorado River to meet downstream obligations and preserve Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are now less than half full.

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