State Watch

In a drying West, Utah governor proposes major water investments

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) unveiled his $25 billion budget proposal last month near what was once the shore of the Great Salt Lake. But instead of waves lapping behind him, the waterline was barely visible in the distance.

One of the longest periods of prolonged drought in modern memory has shrunk the lake by more than 10 feet in recent decades, just one barometer in parched Western states that are feeling the increasingly dire effects of a changing climate that is sapping reservoirs, contributing to extreme fires and reducing snowpack and river flow.

The drought is now challenging some of the fastest-growing states in America, including Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, where the future of both the urban and agricultural economy is now coming under pressure.

“Utah’s future is directly dependent on our ability to meet the needs of our citizens, and that water need is the greatest,” Cox said in an interview. “We’ve actually had a surplus of water for generations, and for the first time since those early settlers came and started building reservoirs, that is no longer true. We no longer have surplus water.”

Cox has proposed using $500 million in federal funding — about 2 percent of the state’s overall budget — on water conservation projects. About half of that money would go to measuring the amount of water used on agriculture, which can significantly reduce water usage.

Another $50 million would be spent on preserving the lake itself. And Cox wants to set aside $100 million, money from federal coronavirus relief funding, to create a match program for local governments funding water infrastructure.

The money, Cox said, is part of a recognition that Utah’s economic growth is inexorably tied to the changing climate.

“If your priority’s economy, then you should care about water. If your priority’s agriculture, then you should care about water. If your priority’s people, then you should care about water. Obviously, if your priority’s the environment, then then you should care about water,” he said.

Water spending has increasingly come to feature in Western state budgets. The infrastructure bill will direct about $405 million to water projects in Nevada. The Environmental Protection Agency in December announced $109 million in funding for water projects in Arizona.

Environmental groups have cheered the spending, though most say they want to see more urgency in tackling the growing crisis of climate change.

Cox “is thinking about Utah’s water supply into the future, and that is something every Western governor has to be doing right now,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental group based in Denver. “That is the reality of life in the West right now. Every governor is going to have to deal with water shortages, every governor is going to have to deal with megafires, because that is our reality.”

The bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last year by President Biden will funnel about $8 billion to Western states to fund water projects. The Build Back Better reconciliation package, under negotiation between the White House and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), includes tens of billions more for wildfire prevention and climate-related agriculture reforms.

Republicans in Washington are far less likely to acknowledge the existence or impact of climate change than are Republican governors in Western states. Cox acknowledged the fraught politics, created by years of climate denialism that has contributed to yet another seemingly unbridgeable partisan divide.

“If you’re going to propose a budget that deals with water and wildfire, it would be encouraging if governors, regardless of party, would acknowledge why we’re dealing with these water shortages, why we’re dealing with these megafires,” Weiss said.

Cox, who has recognized the threat of climate change, said he wanted to avoid those same pitfalls as he steers a budget toward more water conservation.

“People realize that the climate is changing. There are certainly deep arguments about how much of it is is caused by man, how much of it is natural, and I don’t need to jump into that debate every single time,” he told The Hill. “There are opportunities for all of us to do better and do more.”

Tags Joe Biden Joe Manchin Spencer Cox Utah

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