One crop uses more than half of Utah’s water

Irrigation canal in Rockville Utah.

With Great Salt Lake drying up and spreading toxic dust across Wasatch Valley neighborhoods, water conservation has become a key air quality issue in Utah

A recent Salt Lake Tribune article shines light on just how much one crop affects water conservation. Growing alfalfa dominates water consumption in the state, accounting for more than half of the water used. It takes 450,000 gallons of water to produce a single ton of alfalfa. About 29% of that alfalfa is exported, and most of that goes to China.

“The cost of devoting so much water to a single crop is becoming increasingly and painfully clear as Utah’s water supplies get depleted… But the cost of that, frankly, given the aridification of our climate, is probably horrendous degradation of the quality of life on the Wasatch Front,” University of Utah economics professor Gabriel Lozada said for the Tribune article. 

Great Salt Lake’s record low water levels can be traced to the climate crisis, and to upstream diversions, most of which are feeding agriculture (alfalfa) in the Weber, Bear and Provo basins.  Utah water law makes it so most farmers are not incentivized to conserve their water, or even make more efficient use of it. The Utah Farm Bureau’s Kane County president, Dusty Reese explains in the Tribune article, “you have to prove that you have been using your water, even if you own the water rights. If you’re not pulling out the water, if you’re not using it, the state will come in and take it to someone else, so most agriculturalists will always use all of their water.”

“As growers are not rewarded for conserving water, nor are they penalized for overusing it. This is because growers don’t actually pay for the water they use; they pay a price per share in canal companies, which remains the same regardless of how much water is delivered to their fields. Those payments cover the canals’ debt obligations, operations and upkeep, but not for the water itself” the Tribune article explains. 

There’s at least one obvious bottom line- Utah water laws need to meet the reality of the 21st century.

The main thing individuals can do is to eat less meat, especially beef. Reducing meat consumption helps in three ways: better personal health, better air quality, and to address the climate crisis.

Read the Tribune’s coverage here.