Drought in the West: Utah’s population growth affects drought | Opinion

Utah is known for its beautiful mountains, wildlife, national parks, state parks, and more. Lately, Utah’s persistent drought and its impacts on Great Salt Lake levels have been in the news. Those of us who live in this beautiful state all benefit from the ecosystem services provided by our healthy forests and rangelands.

However, to continue to benefit from the ecosystem, Utahans must begin to think holistically about the consequences that the drought brings and that our actions perpetuate.

Utah water management is and should be more than just reducing the amount of water used for lawns – which is still very important and needs to be done. Well-managed forests reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and help increase the benefits of the forest ecosystem, especially those related to water. Through active management of our watersheds, biological diversity is enhanced, wildlife populations thrive, and entire ecosystems become more resilient.

According to the US Drought Monitor Map, in January 2021, 68.56% of Utah was in “exceptional” drought, the worst category. In July 2022, most of the state (83.03%) was in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought — the two worst categories. With warm weather forecast, conditions could worsen over the summer. With approximately 71% of the state of Utah made up of public lands which provide food, water, energy, minerals and other essential resources, the quality and quantity of water become increasingly important as the population of the state increases.

Healthy watersheds – areas that channel precipitation and snowmelt into streams, streams, rivers and outflow points – are irreplaceable natural systems that collect, store and transport water resources. By actively managing these watersheds, entire ecosystems become more resilient to disturbances like wildfires and drought. Therefore, when done well, active management of public lands is designed to increase the supply of water in large quantities, especially when water is urgently needed.

Collectively, we must become better stewards of the natural resources on which we depend for our well-being and our survival. Currently, about 4 billion people worldwide are affected by water scarcity at least once a year; this number is expected to reach 6 billion by 2050.

As Utah’s population grows and the climate continues to change, we become more dependent on our many ecosystem services. As demand increases, so does the need for clean, reliable water supplies. In Utah, population growth is booming, making it vitally important to work together to stretch the water supply.

Without good, active stewardship of public lands, the Utah outdoor spaces we know and love are at risk. Understanding the overall impact that Utah’s persistent drought can have on our entire ecosystem is the best way for Utahans to start changing their ways. We all play a part and we should each know our role in protecting our precious water supply.

As individuals, we must ensure that we conserve water in our homes and yards, and as a community, we must support active land management of our public lands and watersheds. Active management of our public lands will provide greater value to all who benefit from their existence now and in the future.

Rachel Shilton is a manager with the Utah Division of Water Resources. She is a professional engineer with over 20 years of practical experience in the environmental and water fields.