Utah's gnarly drought prompts governor to issue 'water action' plan

A mooring sinker is pictured on the dried up shore of Echo Reservoir during a drought on Sept. 16, 2021. Gov. Spencer Cox
has released an action plan on water to better conserve and utilize the resource.

A mooring sinker is pictured on the dried up shore of Echo Reservoir during a drought on Sept. 16, 2021. Gov. Spencer Cox has released an action plan on water to better conserve and utilize the resource. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Citing the extreme drought that had Utah in a chokehold last summer, pummeling residents to conserve water, Gov. Spencer Cox released Thursday what is the first chapter in "Utah's Coordinated Action Plan for Water."

"The extreme drought conditions this past year have shown all Utahns the importance of water planning and conservation," Cox said. "We have benefited from water storage decisions made by policymakers 100 years ago. Now it's our turn to ensure water security for future generations and this plan will do this."

The plan taps the expertise of multiple state agencies and builds on a list of more than 200 recommendations to safeguard water supplies in the fastest-growing state in the nation, gripped by challenges of new development amid an increasingly arid climate.

Cox said the goal of the plan is to synthesize those recommendations and balance them against competing interests that include needs for agriculture, growing cities and environmental concerns that range from the imperiled Utah Lake to a dwindling Great Salt Lake.

Both challenges experienced by those lakes pose public health problems such as harmful algal bloom outbreaks at Utah Lake and the exposed lake bed of the Great Salt Lake fostering wind-blown dust laden with toxins.


The effort is a collaboration between the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Department of Agriculture and Food.

Collaboration among these agencies speaks to the need for a coordinated plan to embrace the most comprehensive strategies for a finite resource that is straining under the challenge of climate variability.

Last October, for example, was one of the wettest Octobers on record. November followed as the second-driest ever logged.

Cox's plan tackles a number of areas that are of growing concern, especially worn-out infrastructure that needs to be replaced.

While the delivery systems may be out of sight and out of mind for residents most of the time, last summer underscored the need for water conservation, especially to assure a steady supply at the tap.

Residents, cities, companies and institutions heeded the call, but one summer of water savings won't help Utah claw its way out of the drought.

Consider this: An analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey said the Great Salt Lake needs to rise by four feet of water because of 20 years of drought. How much water is that? About 2.5 million acre-feet. An acre-foot of water is enough to flood a football field by one foot.

Cox's plan stresses the urgency to prepare now, and act now to adjust to the wide-ranging water challenges.

"Storage reservoirs are reaching historic lows, harmful algal blooms are increasing, exceptionally dry soil moisture levels are reducing spring runoff, and the state's drinking and agricultural water sources are increasingly at risk," it notes.

The first "chapter" in Cox's plan stresses the need to replace aging infrastructure to assure a safe, reliable supply of water to Utah residents.

"Utahns today are benefitting from historic investments in our state's water infrastructure which facilitated the expansion of jobs, created new recreation opportunities, and allowed new neighborhoods to develop. These aging facilities are in need of significant capital investments and improvements. As our community continues to grow, so do our new infrastructure needs," the plan says.

Additional chapters to be released later this year include tackling an array of regulations in communities regarding park strips and landscaping, which makes up the majority of municipal and industrial use of water, as well as how to "optimize" agricultural water demand.

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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