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Where's the water? Utah can't exactly track saved water from agriculture efficiencies

Posted at 12:00 PM, Nov 08, 2023

TAYLORSVILLE, Utah — While Utah’s Agricultural Water Optimization Program has the potential to save tens of thousands of acre-feet of water annually, Hannah Freeze says it may take years to know the true impact of the program.

“Our program is very young in terms of the data we have of how much water we’ve saved,” said Freeze, the program’s manager for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. “We’re just barely having projects that are finished. So we don’t have solid numbers.”

Since 2020, the state has spent $65 million on grants to farmers and canal and irrigation companies to help them save water, with the idea that some of that water would benefit the Great Salt Lake.

As the state is set to release another $200 million in optimization grants, lawmakers and advocacy groups are pushing for more assurances that the saved water makes it to the lake.

“With new legislation, we have the great opportunity to work now with the Division of Water Rights. Every project that we install has to have a meter on it so we can work with the Division of Water Rights to read those meters and get real accurate numbers of what ag[riculture] is using, which has kind of been a data gap that we've had,” Freeze said.

Changes to the program 

The optimization program has become more complex since it launched three years ago, Freeze said. Officials began requiring applicants to include information about estimated water savings and then estimated acre-feet saved, as state leaders pushed for more absolute data.

“We’re just trying to figure out (how) to put all of those puzzle pieces together as we go,” Freeze said.

The efforts to clear up confusion and provide concrete data are currently underway. The Utah Legislature passed Senate Bill 277 earlier this year, allocating $200 million toward the program while implementing new rules and oversight to make it clearer how much water is being saved and where it goes.

The legislation essentially “married” the state’s agricultural department with the Utah Department of Natural Resources and its water rights and water resources divisions to better track water data, Freeze explains.

The agencies now meet monthly as part of a newly formed committee that creates rules and prioritizes potential water-saving projects. It also fields applications from water users seeking to send water downstream to places like the Great Salt Lake.

It’s just not known yet how much is getting there as a result of a program.

“It will be interesting to see what water we can get to the lake,” Freeze said. “I would be excited to see that be part of the solution.”

New efforts to track water

State lawmakers aren’t done pushing for more concrete data and proof that water is going to intended places when it’s saved.

Pressed about whether water saved by agriculture optimization is actually getting into the Great Salt Lake, Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who helped push the optimization program in the Utah Legislature, said he doesn’t really know.

“I believe that it is, but I can’t tell you with perfect certainty that it is,” he said. “There isn’t absolute assurance that the water that’s being saved is going to make it to the absolute end of the ditch, which is the Great Salt Lake.”

Conservation groups have pointed out the same flaw. Zach Frankel, executive of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council, noted last month that there’s nothing in statute that guarantees saved water ends up in the lake.

But Utah’s Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed, executive director of Utah State University’s Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air, said this doesn’t mean the lake isn’t benefiting.

The issue, he said, is that it’s not quantifiable right now.

“What I would say is we don’t know with enough data. And I think we need to have that better data to really ensure,” he said.

That is something Snider said he intends to fix in the upcoming 2024 Utah State Legislature.

Snider is a chair of the bipartisan Great Salt Lake Caucus on Utah’s Capitol Hill, which shepherds legislation impacting the lake through the House and Senate. He said he would seek money for better systems to monitor water savings and where it goes.

Researchers at Utah State University are helping the effort, teaming up with the Utah Division of Water Rights to evaluate how much water the state actually has. The work includes better monitoring systems to track how much water is being saved and where it goes, Steed said.

All of this could take time, though. Freeze said there’s really no timetable for all the projects that received funding to go online. Once all of the funded projects are finished and online, it will take at least one full irrigation year to compare the project to previous years.

Snider said all of these changes should help with accountability.

“I think it’s beholden upon us in the Legislature to ensure that the public’s money is going to what the public has expressed an issue in preserving,” he said.

Ag plays its part 

There are other limitations to the program that add to its complexities. For example, some farmers and ranchers fear losing their water rights if they use less water.

Freeze said some in the farming community feel that they “have a target on their back” and the state is coming to take their water, which she said “isn’t the case.”

Others don’t have the money needed to cover half of a major optimization project as the program requires. Trevor Nielson, general manager of the Bear River Canal Co. in Box Elder County, said he would like to see the program expanded to allow modernization efforts to roll out more quickly.

He also thinks the state should compensate farmers who save water and send it to the Great Salt Lake.

The lake and its decline is certainly heavy on the minds of irrigation water users within its basin; however, Freeze said protecting a body of water as large as the lake will require more help than just optimizing irrigation water. She said other upstream water users will have to chip in, too, to help it recover.

“To say that this is the fix to the Great Salt Lake is entirely untrue,” she said. “We can’t carry the whole burden here in agriculture, but we’re willing to do our part.”

Tim Vandenack, Ogden Standard-Examiner, contributed to this story.

How we did the story - The Great Salt Lake Collaborative

The Great Salt Lake Collaborative — a solutions journalism organization made up of local newsrooms — requested data from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. We asked for records of who had received funds, project description, money granted, project location, anticipated water savings and actual water savings in the Agricultural Water Optimization Program since it launched in 2020.

We received data on 335 projects from 2020 through spring 2023, accounting for $65 million in projects. The grants ranged from $500,000 to $1,000. Each project listed the percentage of water expected to be saved based on industry standard irrigation system efficiencies. The projected water saved per year in acre feet was available for three out of the five application periods. In the other two, the state didn’t require the data. Read our database here.

FOX 13 News interviewed Once Upon a Christmas Tree Farm and Rep. Casey Snider. FOX 13 News and Utah Public Radio interviewed Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed. KSL.com interviewed the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. The Ogden Standard-Examiner interviewed Motta Family Farm and the Bear River Canal Co.