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Report warns of long-term drought, air quality issues

Posted at 3:23 PM, Dec 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-14 19:23:25-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A big new report from Utah State University is warning of long-term drought, continued air quality issues and increased demand for outdoor recreation opportunities.

The report, presented to Governor Spencer Cox on Tuesday, was compiled by more than 140 researchers and scientists at Utah State University's Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air.

"If there’s one thing that researchers can bring to light? It’s the interconnected nature of Utah’s shared resources and how changes to land, water and air influence each other," said USU President Noelle Cockett.

The report is detailed, but also presented in an easy-to-understand fashion (the authors were told to explain some complex subjects in less than 250 words). It is meant to not only explain the situation in Utah now, but also offer some policy advice to make things better in the future.

It highlighted the impacts of population growth, climate change and limited resources. For example:

  • Urban development is increasing and resulting in the loss of agricultural and natural landscapes
  • Utah has been in drought for the past 20 years and long-term drought in the West is expected to be a big part of our future
  • In addition to wildfire threats, forests in Utah face additional threats from disease and insects
  • Water availability in Utah is predicted to continue to decrease, including declining snowpack because of increases in air temperatures
  • Ozone will continue to be a challenge in Utah (though, the report noted, PM 2.5 levels are declining)
  • Climate trends will affect Utah's air quality
  • More than 2.5 million people participate in outdoor recreation every year, with demand only expected to increase in Utah's national parks and state parks
  • The Great Salt Lake has dropped by 11 feet, and water development projects have diverted 39% of the lake's inflow

For some policy makers, the report's presentation did not paint a rosy picture.

"It really doesn’t, but it’s reality," said Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney. "I mean, land, water and air — those are the crucial things that’s key to survival for human life."

But the report did find some positive things, including:

  • Some good management practices for outdoor recreation in the state, with recommendations for how various parts of the state can react to increased demand and visitation
  • Utah's air quality has seen improvement, with some areas in attainment of federal standards thanks to declining PM 2.5 levels
  • Increased water conservation as a result of more awareness of the drought that Utah is in

"I have seen more effort and more potential this year than I ever have," Dr. Kelly Kopp, a professor of water conservation at Utah State University, said of the drought. "So I am truly encouraged."

Gov. Cox said the report will help policy makers come up with good ideas.

"All of this, the growth, the tourism, the drought, it all adds pressure to develop good public policy that is balanced and thoughtful," he said.

Commissioner Whitney said he appreciated the report's nonpartisan approach.

"This is not about Democrats, this is not about Republicans," he said. "This is about the quality of life in Utah."

Read the USU report here: