As an MBA professor who stressed ecology, the environment, and sustainability through his university teaching, I’ve observed too many politicians ignoring nature. Living in the Rocky Mountains much of my life, I’m often troubled by shortsighted government officials who appear not to care about natural resources. This piece is my attempt to clarify a May 21, 2021 report in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News about growing water issues in the western U.S. Below, I’ll cite selected sentences from the newspaper’s actual article in quote marks, and then separately offer my own analysis in response by going through the issues. My rebuttals are to various Deseret News (DN) quotes and officials’ views, much of which can be correctly classified as misinformation.
To start with, California’s Rep. Tom McClintock got at least one thing right in last week’s webinar for GOP members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. He admitted that many of his Republican colleagues “are a special kind of stupid,” including, I think, most Utah officials from the governor on down. These characters incongruously tend to blame their own government for growing water shortages. I argue that it’s not state policies or the weather, but climate change causing much of the crisis. We’re now seeing what experts warned would be “the worst on record,” yet the Utah legislature has merely hoped there would be more rain over past decades. So here are a few brief reactions to the growing predicament in the West.
DN: “The state’s political leaders, however, are taking action.” No, not really! They largely continue to deny or obfuscate our water problems.
DN: “Congress members vow to be better prepared.” Empty rhetoric. Saying “While we cannot legislate water, we can be better prepared,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy hoped would convince people Wednesday. Truly laughable. He and other GOP members of the committee and some water managers bemoaned what they call “burdensome federal regulations such as the Endangered Species Act that have reduced water available for consumptive use in favor of letting it flow unused to the ocean.” Too bad they have no science to back up their hopes and prayers.
Some within the educated GOP know of “the foresight of the federal government at the turn of the 20th century to invest money in infrastructure like dams, canals, and pipelines to move water where it is needed the most and to store it in times of drought.” But there’s no understanding of such facts today. President Joe Biden wants to build more infrastructure to address this problem, but McCarthy, McConnell, and friends refuse any smart investments for the future.
“Modern-day efforts to make similar efforts have been stymied by red tape and lawsuits, they said, adding it has left the West vulnerable.” Yes, due to their climate denials. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. is even more confused. He had four years to do smart infrastructure, but like his boss, Donald Trump, merely voiced the rhetoric about “Infrastructure Week” every seven days throughout 4 years, (200-plus weeks), while doing absolutely nothing about conservation, reservoirs, dams, or our vital water supply.
Nunes’ buddy, Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority in California, manipulatively (or mistakenly) said: “The water shortages in this state (CA) are caused by policy decisions.” Nope, they’re mostly due to GOP water greed and overconsumption. “The fact that the water year is dry and there is not a lot of water, that is weather,” he said. He’s confused, suggesting a lack of understanding reality. These characters justify their evil by blaming the government rather than admitting actual climate change facts. Nor do they personally practice or encourage others to be responsible for water consumption by masses of residents in UT, CA, NV, AZ, etc. So wrong!
A subhead: “Utah leaders taking steps to address drought.” However, it’s all too little, too late. We’ve seen this crisis coming since GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter’s administration back in the 1980s. It was later worsened by ignorance and neglect during Gov. Gary Herbert’s recent administration, a guy who flunked science and never finished college. Now we have the new, current Utah Gov., Spencer Cox, who’s made things more serious because of his delay and confusion as Lt. Governor to Mr. Herbert. But it was “only” 8 years of water neglect.
DN: “Policies, Cox stressed Thursday, will help Utah in these dry times, especially focusing on the need for additional conservation. He added he met with House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, this week to discuss ways to implement water-saving strategies on the state level.” Such statements appear to be like re-runs of old black-and-white films, not fresh new realities.
Cox: “‘We are going to be working at putting resources behind a significant conservation push,’ he said, adding that won’t just be for this year, but long term.” Yeah, like his delay of COVID-19 responses until too many Utahns died, and then finally ramping up, after 400,000 became ill, many now suffering long-term effects in their lives, and 2,000-plus died, most unnecessarily.
“The governor said he could envision a changing landscape for Utah, ‘wherein new developments we would be eliminating park strips, looking at xeriscaping much more. There’s so much more we can do here in the state of Utah.’” Duh! My wife and I, along with many neighbors xeriscaped our yards decades ago. But the state has long lagged in such a vision.
“Also on Wednesday, the state Legislature set aside up to $280 million for water infrastructure. Of that, lawmakers committed to initially spend $100 million for water conservation, likely for the metering of secondary water. Still, like those participating in the congressional discussion, Cox acknowledged the need for new infrastructure projects.” OK, a reality check for Mr. Cox. With Utah’s strong budgets over decades, this ought to have begun years ago, not now.
Cox: “We know that as the fastest-growing state in the nation that we’re going to have to develop new water resources, and we will be proposing and looking at new water resources, but also significant changes in the way we develop and the way we’re careful with water and the use of water,” Cox said. Of course, he’s admitting a crisis, but the solutions could have started in the 1970s! Instead, Utah’s naïve GOP leaders have thought that bringing more people to Utah was good because the government would receive more taxes. In contrast, I wish we’d not recruited outsiders but instead tried to live within our limited water resources.
“U.S. Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, said during the Wednesday forum that the drought sweeping across Utah is debilitating beyond what most people can imagine.” ‘Utah is in the midst of a very, very significant drought which poses a challenge for every individual and industry in Utah,’ he said. Thank goodness he warned with a wiser view than his predecessor from Utah’s 1st Congressional District, Rob Bishop, who ignored water preparation that the state has needed for nearly two decades.
“But Utah’s leaders have come under intense criticism from proposed infrastructure developments that include the Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear Lake Development, both state-sanctioned projects that develop additional water resources for the future.”
“Critics say state officials could save the water they plan to divert by pricing it appropriately and forcing more conversation.” I assume this was meant to say “conservation.” Tage Flint said “That it was water development projects developed early in the 20th century that helped Utah and the rest of the West survive drought conditions. But, he stressed — for generations to come in the nation’s fastest-growing state — that same type of foresight needs to be in play.” ‘In my career, this is the worst (drought) and I have been doing this a long time.’
I would add that the state should finally start charging for the actual costs of water. Not a new idea, but it appears Utah Republicans have never considered it. The GOP always claims it believes in free markets, but then subsidizes residential and farm water with cheap costs so people continue to waste many gallons per day in Utah. This seems to be more akin to the imaginary Republican claims of a “Democratic Socialist agenda,” they harp about daily. Allowing for the massively cheap consumption of precious water resources is the height of recklessness. No responsible leader would do this. By the way, Utahns consume the second-highest amount of water in the country at 169 gallons per capita each and every day. We’re in a mountainous desert, but conservation and stewardship are “foreign” concepts to state leaders and many households.
In conclusion, Mr. Cox now admits ‘We’re heading into one of the worst droughts and potentially one of the worst fire seasons that we’ve seen.’ True, but state and local officials will still not make real fines with teeth in them to punish unwise and careless people. The majority of fires in our state are human-caused, yet significant. Many are started by lax and unthinking residents. At times they are from farmers trying to clear some land, but their small burn may grow out of control quickly, entering the desert or forest areas rapidly. Even worse are irresponsible gun owners out in the wilds doing target practice. The dry ground throughout the state becomes a veritable tinder box of destruction. Then there are the crazy fireworks that I believe need to be banned completely. In 2020 there were a record 1,547 outdoor fires in Utah with 1,202 (78 percent) human-caused, surpassing 2015's record of 937 large blazes. They accounted for almost 100,000 of the 329,000 total acres burned during last season. Predictably, things will likely be worse in 2021.
Utah needs wiser, more responsible water policies to preserve our precious legacy and be smarter stewards of our natural resources. The state should require sensible solutions to protect lives, property, and nature. Yet the likelihood of implementing such policies by Utah politicians is probably zero. (Author, Dr. Warner Woodworth of Utah)
Here’s the link to the entire Deseret News article: https://www.deseret.com/utah/2021/5/21/22446296/western-drought-we-are-a-special-kind-of-stupid-dams-endangered-species-act-utah-california-crops