NewsLocal News


Engineer explains how Utah water rights work during drought

Posted at 5:41 PM, Jun 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-24 19:41:32-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite Thursday's rain throughout the state, Utah remains in the middle of one of the worst droughts in its history.

Many residents have questions about water priorities during the drought, so FOX 13 spoke with Teresa Wilhelmsen, a Utah State Engineer and director of the Utah Division of Water Rights, to provide answers.

Wilhelmsen started with a joking reference to an impossible assignment: Provide a simple explanation of water rights.

"You don't normally hear the words 'water rights' and 'simple' in the same sentence," Wilhelmsen said.

But her explanation was understandable and sobering.

The basics are that priorities for Utah water are primarily about history. People or organizations (cities, conservancy districts) who put a river's water to beneficial use first have rights called "direct flow rights," meaning rights to a portion of a river's flow.

When a river flows at normal annual levels, all of those rights are satisfied with water left over to flow into storage in reservoirs.

That's not the case this year.

The chart below shows where four sections of Utah rivers have stood at this point in the year in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and below that a map shows the fill level in the state's reservoirs. Both graphics created by the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Natural flow distribution on Four River Systems
Utah Water Map