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Utah needs a comprehensive water plan, legislative audit warns

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SALT LAKE CITY — A new audit calls on the state to get a handle on how much water it actually has and come up with better plans to address critical needs.

"Water has been a priority in the Legislature over the last few years, as Utah is the fastest‐growing state in the nation and one of the driest. As the population continues to grow, so will the strains on the state’s water supply, making it imperative to effectively manage Utah’s limited water resources," the audit said.

The audit, released to leaders in the Utah State Legislature on Tuesday, was critical of something that was highlighted in recent reporting by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative (FOX 13 News is a member): the legislature has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on grants for agriculture producers — who make up about 80% of the state's total water use — to switch to new technologies that grow crops with less water. But the program can't conclusively say that conserved water is actually getting downstream to places like the Great Salt Lake.

"UDAF [Utah Department of Agriculture & Food] has spent $65 million on projects without clear transparency on their purpose and outcomes. In order to demonstrate progress towards its goals and objectives and close this information gap, the program should collect all prior water use data and savings, and other meaningful metrics, such as acres irrigated, from all projects it has already funded—as dictated by the program’s requirements," Legislative Auditor-General Kade Minchey's report said, noting that the legislature appropriated another $200 million for more agriculture optimization grants.

The Legislative Auditor-General's Office said the agriculture water optimization program did not enforce its own reporting requirements and auditors were unable to evaluate if outcomes matched the program's purpose, such as reducing consumptive use.

It was a shortcoming state officials and lawmakers already acknowledged in interviews with the Great Salt Lake Collaborative and promised to improve upon. In a formal response to the audit, state agriculture commissioner Craig Buttars said implementing some of the audit's recommendations may require more staffing and money.

"The new statutorily required focus of the program, poses a significant challenge because the Department has a limited ability to ensure that the new program goals of reducing depletion through water optimization projects are achieved. Additional research is needed in order for the program to be successful," Buttars wrote.

Utah's Department of Agriculture & Food pushed back on discrepancies between reducing water consumption versus diversion savings.

"While the Department does not dispute this discrepancy we feel it is important to highlight the value of the diversion reducing projects that have been put in place," Buttars wrote. "Optimizing irrigation practices to reduce diversion of water benefits the hydrologic system in general, benefits water right users downstream who have not previously been able to use their full water rights, and has allowed agricultural producers to create on demand irrigation systems that increased their ability to control the water they use. In some areas of the state, reduced diversions have increased in-stream flow and led to slower reductions in reservoir storage."

Lawmakers are already planning to address these issues. On Monday, FOX 13 News reported on a bill introduced to better ensure that conserved water gets downstream. It includes incentives for farmers to donate or sell conserved water without fear of losing their water rights.

The legislative audit did not address Utah's longstanding water rights history of "first in time, first in right." But it did note that while Utah's Division of Water Rights has a lot of data on water, there needs to be better monitoring of things like groundwater wells. It was something the Utah State Engineer was already implementing, auditors noted.

"As a department, we are already integrating changes. In addressing the growing needs and use of the data collected, Water Rights began an internal assessment of its data. This internal process is a detailed strategic action plan to address best management practices and identify funding needs. We recognize it will take additional funding to address this critical and growing need for good water data," Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Joel Ferry wrote in a formal response to the audit.

The audit found that while Utah's Division of Water Resources is statutorily tasked with coming up with a comprehensive plan for managing the state's water supply, state officials have had a lack of cooperation from other government agencies. It recommended the legislature tweak laws "ensuring all other entities, institutions, and political subdivisions of the state cooperate in statewide planning, and address language which may prevent the Division from collecting the information needed for a comprehensive statewide water plan."

"Water is a critical resource, and planning has an important role in advancing sustainability and resiliency in water systems. Without holistic statewide planning, Utah cannot account for our future population growth and the resulting increase in the needs of water," the audit added.

In response to the audit, one environmental group called for reforms to the program, saying the Great Salt Lake isn't guaranteed the saved water.

"This audit proves that taxpayers are being fleeced if they think this water is going to the Great Salt Lake. The legislature either needs to require water delivery to the Great Salt Lake with new legislation or yank the remaining $200 million back," Zachary Frankel, Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council, said in a statement.

Read the audit here:

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.