New report looks at Utah water law

October 26, 2023 (Utah Policy)

Today, the Utah Foundation releases its second report of a new series on water in Utah.

Utah is one of the driest states in the nation. Making sure the state manages water well is essential to its rapid population growth and economic expan­sion.

There are concerns that Utah’s water law a) provides incentives for wa­ter-right holders to waste water, b) distributes water in a way that might have been a better fit for historic needs rather than modern Utah needs, and c) limits how water can be used.

This report – Flowing into the Desert: A Primer on Utah Water Law – outlines Utah water law, discusses advantages and shortcomings, and then offers possible avenues for addressing these concerns. Key findings include:

  • Utah’s water law is structured such that in times of shortage, the newest claims to water do not get any water while the oldest claims receive all the water of their claim. Water quantity may vary from year to year, but the system is transparent in who receives available water.
  • Water can only be used in specific ways, and if not used it can be forfeited. Historically, this has created little incentive for conservation. This may be changing with recent legislation.
  • Utah’s water law has shown that it can be flexible to meet current needs. Recent legislation has updated allowable uses to benefit local ecological systems like the Great Salt Lake. Other legislation has created incentives for farmers to install more efficient irrigation systems and sell the conserved water.
  • Utah law states that if water is not used during seven consecutive years, it is subject to forfeiture. However, there is little proactive enforcement. It is unclear how much water that is not being used as specified could be reallocated to meet current needs.
  • There are several possible water law changes for Utah policymakers to consider, including redefining beneficial uses, verifying beneficial uses, creating open water markets, and shortening the window to forfeiture.

Utah Foundation President Shawn Teigen notes that, “We use water all day every day in our homes and on our plants, and we often discuss droughts – but how can water be used and changed to fit our needs?” Teigen explains that “The newest report in this series provides a baseline of knowledge to help Utah residents and policymakers understand the framework on which water policy takes place.”

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