Western Water News

UPDATE: Increasing Flexibility to Manage Utah’s Water for People and Birds

Policy priorities for the 2020 Utah legislative session.

(UPDATE 2/24/2020): Utah’s Water Banking Act (SB 26), which Audubon supports, unanimously passed both the House and Senate and will become law following the Governor’s signature. This bill authorizes the 10-year water banking pilot program allowing water rights holders the opportunity to temporarily and voluntarily lease their water rights included in a water bank. We greatly appreciate Utah’s proactive legislative sponsors and the many collaborators who spent years developing the water banking program, seeking input from water users throughout the state. Learn more at utahwaterbank.org.

As one of the most arid states, stretching Utah’s water supplies to meet many needs is challenging—particularly in the face of a changing climate and a growing population expected to nearly double by 2065.

As part of multiple working groups, Audubon has been working with other key stakeholders to develop solutions to increase Utah’s flexibility in managing water resources for agricultural, municipal, and environmental needs. We believe the following priorities represent some of the best in collaborative problem solving as we enter the 2020 legislative session:

Water Banking Act: In response to the 2017 Utah Recommended Water Strategy and the 2019 joint legislative resolution to study water banking and recommend legislation, more than 70 stakeholders spanning agricultural interests, water suppliers, and conservation groups developed a framework for water banking. That framework forms the basis for the proposed 2020 Water Banking Act (SB 26), which would authorize two types of voluntary banking programs that allow for temporary transactions between water users. The objectives of the Act include promoting optimal use of the public’s water, transparency, and access to markets. The Act’s provisions also are intended to facilitate sustainable agricultural production, meet municipal demands, and help meet water quality standards and provide for a healthy and resilient natural environment.

The legislation goes hand-in-hand with efforts to study water banking supported with a $400,000 appropriation in 2019, along with an award of $400,000 from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for a WaterSMART Grant. Three areas are designated for study under the grant, including demonstration projects in Cache County, the Snyderville Basin, and Price River.

Split-Season Uses and Applications to Change Water Use: Split-season water sharing arrangements were proposed in the 2017 Utah Recommended Water Strategy and have been incorporated into proposed legislation, H.B. 130, sponsored by Representative Timothy Hawkes. This flexible tool facilitates short-term seasonal water uses for the benefit of agricultural, other water users, and the environment. For example, a farmer could decide to irrigate a first cutting of hay and then forego subsequent cuttings that year, while leasing or allowing another user to use the remainder of the farmer’s water for that irrigation season. While split-season uses would be subject to water availability and other conditions to avoid harm to users, it offers another means to share water for the benefit of many users and the environment.

The bill recognizes and defines split-season uses, while also clarifying that categories of change applications include not only “temporary” (1 year) and “permanent” (indefinite) changes, but also “fixed-time changes” that can be longer than one year, but not exceeding ten years.

Watershed Council Act: A stakeholder group, including Audubon, has worked on a framework to set up a statewide and local watershed councils. The idea for local basin councils was also an outgrowth of the 2017 Utah Recommended Water Strategy. Recognizing that “collaborative solutions developed by diverse stakeholders have historically proven to be the most effective means to address Utah’s water needs and to develop water policy,” the goal of H.B. 166, is to authorize creation of local basin councils as a forum for addressing watershed issues with local interests and expertise. The bill also would establish a statewide ‘Utah Watersheds Council” to provide a forum to encourage and facilitate discussion and collaboration among stakeholders on various water-related matters and also facilitate the creation of the local watershed councils. The proposed legislation identifies 12 watersheds for local councils, including the 11 hydrologic basins designated by the Division of Water Resources, as well as the Great Salt Lake watershed that includes not only the lake, but also the five water basins that feed Great Salt Lake.

Audubon will continue its efforts throughout the 2020 legislative session to support these flexible mechanisms for water sharing.

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