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Utah’s ongoing response to drought

Tags: Future Prosperity, Rural, Rural Matters

The western U.S. is experiencing the worst drought in more than 1,200 years.

We’re the fastest-growing state in the nation and one of the driest. Drought or not, we need to be serious about decreasing our water use. That’s why we worked so hard with the Legislature this past session to allocate nearly $500 million to water infrastructure, planning, and management, effectively changing 160 years of major water policy in Utah.

We all need to be part of our water solutions. Reliable, clean water is essential to our quality of life and continued prosperity. Here’s a look at what we’re doing to conserve water.

🧵I’m excited to see so many new people interested in water policy/drought/saving the Great Salt Lake over the past couple weeks! Unfortunately many have gotten their information from the NYTimes or John Oliver…so let me share with you some BIG changes we’ve made just this year.

— Spencer Cox (@SpencerJCox) July 6, 2022

Incentivizing conservation

Around 60% of residential water use is for outdoor watering, so Utah is eliminating non-functional grass from landscapes throughout the state. In the 2022 session, legislators passed one of the nation’s first statewide grass rebate programs and allocated $5 million in funding. If you’re interested in one of the many available rebates, visit

Legislators also passed limits on grass allowances on new and remodeled state facilities, and cities in southern Utah have banned grass in new commercial, institutional, and industrial developments — unless there is a functional purpose.
Programs like Slow The Flow and H2Oath exist to help educate residents and businesses on how they conserve by reducing waterings, eliminating grass, and more. We are taking actions today, and will take more actions in the future, to reduce our outdoor water use.

Agriculture optimization

Agriculture accounts for about 75% of the state’s total water use, but we all need feed. Fortunately, farmers and ranchers are at the table, ready to do their part to conserve.

HB33, passed in 2022, changed an old “use it or lose it” law so farmers could leave some of their water in streams without losing their allotted amount.

In addition, we support agricultural optimization, which means finding ways the industry can stretch limited water resources further. We’ve signed numerous bills to help these efficiency efforts — including HB423 — and support the Agricultural Water Optimization Task Force that works to identify issues and sustain Utah’s vital agriculture industry. We’ll also be allocating $70 million in grant money for agricultural optimization. 

Many farmers are finding that they can significantly reduce their water usage while increasing crop yields by updating their irrigation systems and implementing new technologies. Cost is a huge barrier so programs like this go a long way towards helping producers upgrade their irrigation systems. 
Finished projects from the initial round of funding have a reported savings of 21,459 acre feet of water — that’s about 7 billion gallons of water! Projects funded in 2021 have a projected water savings of 15,283 acre feet of water. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food just approved 140 more projects for funding and there are many more projects and water savings to come!

The Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake contributes $1.3 billion annually to Utah’s economy and is a critical stop for wildlife that rests and refuels here. We are dedicated and focused on protecting this indispensable natural resource and the wetlands that surround it.

Managing water is critical to safeguarding the Great Salt Lake. In the past year, we’ve signed HB410, which creates a $40 million trust to increase water for the Great Salt Lake and improve the lake’s upstream habitat; and HB429, which requires the Division of Water Resources to study and gather data about five watersheds that feed the Great Salt Lake.

Water storage

The people who settled Utah’s arid mountain valleys and western states knew that we must store water. Different-sized reservoirs are located throughout the state. Small reservoirs store about one year’s worth of water, while larger reservoirs, like Strawberry or Jordanelle, store several years’ worth. Reservoir storage helps to prevent water shortages and is dependent on snowpack and runoff.

Because the amount of water Mother Nature delivers varies from year to year, it’s important to have reservoirs to store water in years when there’s an abundance so it’s available during dry years. With 100% of the state currently in drought and less water in our streams and reservoirs, Utah is currently relying on stored water from past years. Reservoirs are functioning as designed — but we don’t know how long the current drought will last.

Thankfully, there’s been an influx of funding for that type of infrastructure, like HB37. Storing water above ground and underground will make a big difference in preserving water resources.

Growth and Development

We know that Utah is growing. We want to ensure our children can afford to buy a home here and that there will be enough resources. Building more will lower the price of housing, but we must be responsible about it. 

SB110 passed in the 2022 General Legislative Session and requires that city officials have to include water resources when evaluating new projects. 

Every community has a duty to conserve water. City councils and mayors should always look at water resources before issuing building permits to make sure they’re not overextending in a way that would harm the community. It’s not just a suggestion anymore; it’s the law.

Cross-state collaboration

One-third of Utahns rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, and the river is a major contributor to the state’s $189 billion economy. When it comes to resources like the Colorado River, Utah must work with neighboring states to preserve and protect water.

This is especially urgent given that far more Colorado River water is being used, especially by the Lower Basin states, than is available due to the current drought of record and climate change impacts. Recent estimates based on last year’s use show the Lower Basin and Mexico are using about 10 million acre-feet, the Upper Basin states are using about 3.5 million acre-feet and the available flow is only around 6.3 million acre-feet.

Drought underscores the need for more conservation, additional infrastructure and water resource development. Utah will not exceed its allocation of Colorado River water. 
Utah’s executive and legislative leadership agree that Utah’s Colorado River water is essential to our future and we’re committed as a state – with support of both government branches – to protect state rights as we work to solve the challenges of the river with our fellow Colorado River water users.

Working with tribes

Utah respects tribal water rights. The state has engaged with several Indian tribes throughout the state to quantify their water rights. These tribes have shown a willingness to work together with the state and federal government in determining an equitable solution, and have also often been champions of responsible water use and conservation.

This past year, we joined U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in signing a federal reserved water rights settlement agreement. This agreement – 18 years in the making – recognizes and protects the reserved water rights of the Navajo Nation and will help bring clean drinking water to the Navajo people in Utah.


Yes, we asked Utahns to pray for rain last summer, but we’re certainly not relying on deity alone to solve our problems. 

We don’t know how long this drought will last, but we do know that what we do as individuals, families, businesses, institutions, and industries will help ensure clean and reliable water for generations to come.

We will keep working with all Utahns – households, farmers, businesses, governments and other groups – to carefully consider their needs and reduce their water use. Stay up-to-date with Utah’s Coordinated Action Plan for Water.

We’ve done it before: In 2021, Utahns saved billions of gallons in water by being conscious of their water usage. And we’ll do it again.