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Utah Business

Water-related issues could put future economic growth in Utah at risk.

If we want growth, we need water solutions

As Utah water levels continue to lower, this issue can pressure our already inflated economy.

The Great Salt Lake alone impacts over $1.5 billion of our economy, driven by strategic mineral extraction from its waters. The lake is a rich repository of lithium, titanium, magnesium, and potash — essential elements in producing everything from medical devices to rechargeable batteries and crop fertilizer. Nearly 7,000 local jobs are directly reliant upon the lake.

Saving for a rainy day

In July, the Great Salt Lake and Lake Powell were at their lowest levels ever. And although winter months saw snowfall and watersheds are no longer in the red alert stage for snowpack, a persistent portion of the state does remain in extreme drought.

Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources explains that one of the reasons this is so important is because about 95 percent of our water supply comes from our snowpack. “That snow held up in the mountains all winter melts, runs down the watersheds and starts filling our reservoirs. Our reservoirs operated just as they should have this last year, right? We built them to capture high flows to use indirectly during wet and dry years. The only thing is that we must make sure to have enough for our inevitable future dry years,” says Hasenyager.

The Great Salt Lake is an essential point of discussion because, although not drinkable, it is considered a canary in the coal mine. The winter’s snow melts and slides down to the reservoirs, and the refuse ends up in the Great Salt Lake. In an average good year, the lake rises two to three feet. This year, it only climbed six inches. If the lake rises to high levels, communities can be confident that they will have enough water for their needs. If it doesn’t, communities need to know there might be issues for local economies and environments.

Although the lack of water is felt in both the economy and environment, the government is not placing any limitations or regulations on the private sector to keep the state as business-friendly as possible.

“Turf removal and linear outdoor landscaping is the biggest opportunity for businesses, homeowners, and people within cities,” says Laura Hanson, State Planning Coordinator for the Utah Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. “We have a kind of cultural expectation here of having a lush green lawn. We live in a desert in a drought. That’s probably not the most appropriate choice long term.”

 Hanson’s recommendations include preparing your lot with drought-tolerant landscaping instead of green grass and considering which county your business would be most appropriate in, depending on that county’s reservoir.

Data centers are one of the businesses that use up the most water. While Utah remains “business-friendly,” the state is still interested in diversifying which counties these data centers are located in, so they are not all pulling from the same water supply.

 Private-sector water stewards

One business that has been formally recognized for its conservation efforts is Real Salt Lake (RSL). In 2017, the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce called Real Salt Lake a “water champion.” Without compromising the pitch at Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL found other areas around the stadium where they could conserve or eliminate water usage.

“Our landscaping throughout the stadium grounds is designed with water conservation. Rio Tinto Stadium uses a drip system and ground cover to limit evaporation,” an RSL representative told the Salt Lake Chamber. “Also, landscaping is designed with water-wise plants rather than planting grass throughout the grounds. Carnival Real, a one-acre area, used to host fans in a fun outdoor area, was modified with water conservation top of mind. The gravel and grass area was replaced with artificial turf, eliminating the need to water. Minimal landscaping was used as well in Carnival Real’s perimeter. Original plans included a water feature but were modified due to the need for strict water conservation efforts.”

Today, RSL continues to make the same commitment. Since 2017, the organization has cut its water usage by 50 percent. “We do remain conscious of the water situation here in Utah and try to limit water expenditure as necessary with that in mind,” a spokesperson for the team says. 

Strengthening infrastructure

In 2022, The Utah Legislature approved nearly $516 million in funding for natural resources, agriculture, and environmental quality projects. These appropriations will heavily trickle to water infrastructure, with $50.6 million in ongoing money and $464.9 million in one-time funding. That includes $200 million one-time funding for secondary water metering, $30 million one-time money for Utah Lake preservation, $25 million one-time for rural drinking water projects, $40 million in one-time funds to create a trust for the Great Salt Lake, and $60 million one-time for the Bear Lake Marina expansion.

Citing Utah’s extreme drought in 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox said, “Conditions this past year have shown all Utahns the importance of water planning and conservation. We have benefited from water storage decisions made by policymakers 100 years ago. Now it is our turn to ensure water security for future generations, and this plan will do this.”

Water is the lifeblood of communities and will always remain a backbone issue for the Utah economy. Undoubtedly, every business and citizen must do their part to build a better place now and in the future.