In last Sunday’s SLTrib (8 May 2011), Ed Firmage Jr. had an op-ed piece titled: “Depending on water “banked” in agriculture is poor policy.” For the first 3/4th of the article, he stated that global climate change is coming and its going to have a severe impact on Utah. “The bottom line is that Utah is heading into a water crisis, and no one at any level of government here has a plan for dealing with it.”
While I agree that all levels of government should be planning for climate change, there is one point that needs to be emphasized: modeling future climate change is a dicey business. There are just too many interrelationships and variables. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t heed the warnings; it does means that we should be very leery of tossing numbers around.
Firmage’s whipping boy is the Bureau of Reclamation. It should be noted that this Federal organization has constructed 20+ dams in Utah and these physical structures are cornerstone in helping Utah manage its water, whether it is during a wet year like this one (2011) or during periods of drought (like we’ve encountered in recent years).
Another potent water management tool is water banking. On this, Firmage and I disagree. He states:
The reason the state’s not yet in panic mode is that it believes it has an ace up its sleeve, the water that is “banked” in agriculture, where 80 percent of our water is consumed.
The state believes that if we run short, we’ll just farm less and take some of that agricultural water. . . .
Firmage goes on to make the following dire prediction:
With massive projected drops in supply, and equally massive projected increases in use, this means the end of Utah agriculture.
Utah’s agriculture is not going to end, and Firmage’s prediction is an exercise in hystrionics. There is a form of water management called “water banking.” It involves a formal process where, on a year-by-year basis, water goes to the highest-valued use. It doesn’t involve a permanent transfer from one sector to another. Actual “water banking,” has great potential for helping Utahns better manage their water. It is currently practiced in the Delta, Utah, area with great success. The Bureau of Reclamation is encouraging this type of banking through its WaterSMART program.
The “banking” that Firmage is talking about is a permanent conversion of agricultural water to municipal and industrial (M&I) water. This largely happens when subdivision are constructed on land that was previously farmed. During the process, the water right is frequently converted from an agricultural water right to a municipal one. This conversion makes a lot of sense.
All of the water districts in Utah are currently taking steps to improve urban water conservation. These efforts are having a real impact on municipal water demand, particularly outdoor water usage. So the per capita demand for municipal water is declining.
There is another way of dealing with the potential impacts of global warming, and that is with geoengineering. I have discussed this option elsewhere in my blog and will not repeat it here. I feel that a significant research effort is needed to study whether it is feasible to manipulate climate/weather is a constructive way.
Firmage correctly states that irrigated agriculture is a major user of water in Utah. But the irrigation water is not always used as efficiently as it should be. So it is possible to reduce the total amount of water diverted to agriculture without harming agricultural production. The Bureau of Reclamation has been assisting irrigators by improving their water delivery systems and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service has been assisting with on-farm irrigation systems improvements.
I greatly appreciate Ed Firmage Jr. for bringing up the issue of the global warming its potential impacts on Utah. This is a dialogue that needs to continue.