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Water, education, mental health and housing are on list of 'critical vulnerabilities' in Utah

Posted at 6:46 PM, Sep 18, 2023

ST. GEORGE, Utah — A new state audit outlines a dozen "critical" issues facing the state from water and education to mental health, housing affordability and cybersecurity.

It's the first time such a report has been generated. It was prepared by the Utah State Office of Legislative Auditor General for legislative leadership.

The report lists water demands as among the most pressing issues facing Utahns, including aging infrastructure that poses health and environmental risks. Despite a record-breaking winter, the state is still recovering from drought, the audit said. The shrinking Great Salt Lake was referenced, with a footnote in the audit finding that "dust mitigation" from an exposed lake bed costing at least $1.5 billion to fix with ongoing annual maintenance of $15 million.

"Those estimates skyrocket if costs and affected surface area increase," the audit said.

That is something all Utahns should be worried about, said newly-appointed Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed.

"If we don’t do the right things now, we’re paying much higher costs later," he said in an interview with FOX 13 News. "That’s why we need to get ahead of it and make sure the Great Salt Lake is healthy today."

Auditors announced plans to scrutinize the state's top water user — agriculture — in light of the Utah State Legislature spending roughly $276 million to modernize watering systems for crops to use less.

Education was another top priority, with auditors expressing concerns about student proficiency and awareness of opportunities within Utah's public education program.

"I appreciate the call-out on education being one of the most critical issues in the state and there’s risk involved if we don’t provide our schools with the resources they need," said Dr. Sydnee Dickson, the superintendent of public instruction for Utah.

While auditors found improvements in Utah's mental health and substance abuse treatment systems, but Utah still lacks some critical resources. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 24.

"Utah has lost more than six hundred individuals to suicide each year since 2015—more than double the number of deaths due to motor vehicles," the audit said.

Utah suffers from significant employment vacancies in critical areas particularly in state government, the report said. There are shortages at the prisons, state mental hospital and in other agencies. Wages are also below private market.

The audit also identified 25% of Utahns "are housing cost-burdened, limiting economic mobility." From 2020 to 2022, rents grew more than the previous two decades, the report said.

The audit also highlighted energy demands, the risk of cyberattacks and the need to safeguard residents' data, diversifying Utah's tax base and ensuring buildings are seismically sound in an earthquake.

"We do have some work to do. Absolutely," House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told FOX 13 News.

He said state leaders have already been addressing the issues.

"There’s some things I'm proud of but some things we need to step up and address as we move forward," he said.

Read the full audit here: