Western Water News

How Flexible Water Management could Benefit both People and Birds

Exploring a water banking system that works for Utah.

Early settlers in the Beehive State mastered irrigation through a network of canals to put precious and limited water resources to use. And today, in the face of a growing population that is expected to nearly double to 5.6 million by 2065 and a changing climate that makes water availability less predictable, Utah is exploring the possibility of developing a water banking program.

Water banking is a flexible tool that relies on market systems to facilitate the temporary and voluntary transfer of water from one user to another.

The 2017 Utah Recommended Water Strategy sets the stage for facilitating short-term water transfers that can help sustain agriculture and food production with competing water demands while contributing to improved water quantity and quality management. The Water Strategy also recognizes that facilitating water markets for environmental needs could help “preserve natural systems in the face of increasing water demands.”

Ideally, water banks would make it easier for farmers, ranchers, and other water right holders to lease out their water rights temporarily when they’re not needed in their operations. This could benefit other agricultural users in a local watershed. The benefits of water banking can also flow to recreational, environmental or municipal uses, particularly in times of drought or even seasonally.

While several western states already employ water banking to facilitate short-term water transactions, Utah is in the early stages of developing a framework of its own. During the 2019 Utah legislative session, lawmakers unanimously adopted Joint Resolution SJR001. Sponsored by Senator Jani Iwamoto (D-4) and Rep. Stewart Barlow (R-17), the resolution requests recommendations for how Utah could develop a water banking program of its own. 

The Joint Resolution follows almost two years of collaborative effort by a diverse group of stakeholders working together to design the policy concepts for water banking that make sense for Utah. Audubon is a part of this group along with agricultural interests, Utah State agencies, including the Divisions of Water Rights, Water Resources, Water Quality and Department of Agriculture and Food, as well as public water suppliers, water law experts and other conservation interests. Audubon and many other members of the group supported the Joint Resolution’s passage.

"Key to the water banking concepts we are developing for Utah are locally managed banks and ensuring that those making 'water deposits' keep their long-term rights to any water they contribute to the bank," said Sterling Brown, VP of public policy for the Utah Farm Bureau Federation. “There is a need to have a bottom up approach that can vary across watersheds.”

In fact, many are on board with a local approach.

"In designing a water bank policy, we want to create a locally-driven process that empowers local right holders to create and manage water banks with appropriate state oversight, while also keeping transaction costs low and guarding against speculation and impairment to other water right holders," said stakeholder group member Nathan Bracken, a water attorney with Smith Hartvigsen, and formerly Assistant Director and General Counsel for Western States Water Council. "Ideally, water banking would serve as one of many water marketing tools that would provide an alternative to 'buy-and-dry' transfers in which water is permanently removed from agriculture."

In conjunction with the Joint Resolution, the Utah Legislature also approved a one-time appropriation of $400,000 will support efforts to study water banking and conduct pilot projects to assess and recommend how these water banks can be implemented in the state and benefit Utahns. There also is a plan to leverage the state funding with federal dollars, by seeking a grant through the US Bureau of Reclamation WaterSmart program for developing water marketing strategies and increasing outreach.

These study efforts will help inform draft legislation, which the stakeholder group is developing through a collaborative consensus-based approach. 

Enabling a variety of water sharing opportunities through market-based systems like water banking, is one way to foster opportunities for putting water in places that benefit not only people but birds as well. Farms and grasslands can play an important role for birds—providing habitat, food, and return water flows to the natural system.

The long-term water challenges facing Great Salt Lake and its wetlands are enormous, and it will take a variety of solutions to ensure adequate flows. Market based arrangements, including water banking could provide some of the elements of those needed solutions.

For more information on the water banking program, visit UtahWaterBanks.org.

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