When Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Prophet Brigham Young quoted Isaiah 35:1-2 proclaiming, “This desert will blossom like a rose,” skeptics saw the dry, desolate landscape and wondered how this could possibly be true. Even Jim Bridger offered to pay money for a bushel of corn raised in the God-forsaken country. Some early settlers questioned the veracity of the Prophet’s words and decided to travel further west to California. Yet some 180 years later, the desert has blossomed and is providing home for approximately three million people.
Water was the catalyst for the success of Utah’s development. Lately, media groups have launched attacks on the use of irrigation in growing of crops, particularly alfalfa. In an article published in the Deseret News, Amy Joi O’Donoghue, author of the article, quotes Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University, “. . . because agriculture commands such a large percentage of available water, it is easy to blame ranchers and farmers in an overly simplistic fashion.” He continues, “It’s impossible for us to manage this problem without farmers. We are all beneficiaries of the work that farmers do, and so it doesn’t do anyone any good to wag our fingers at farmers and tell them to fix it.”
Water use is a complicated issue. There are basically two sources of water: run-off water from local mountains and ground water, water that has percolated from streams, lakes, and other sources to create aquifers or basins of water underground. Wells can be dug to supply water, usually culinary, to residents. Pressurized irrigation ponds can be used to collect and transfer water for lawns and gardens.
It has always been a long- held belief that irrigating crops usessignificantly more water than residential water use. Measuring exactly the amount used in irrigation by farmers has usually been problematic. In 2020 a task force was commissioned by the Legislative Agricultural Water Optimization Task Force to quantify the actual amount of water used by farmers. It was conducted by the Utah Department of Natural Resources. The task force was comprised of water experts from across the state. The project was identified as a high priority. Accurate measurement and accounting of available water supplies, demands and actual water consumption were identified as a critical step toward protecting and enhancing Utah’s agricultural economy and water resources in light of increasing demands for Utah’s limited water resources.
Two goals were given: 1) optimize agricultural water supply and use, and 2) improve quantification of agricultural use on a basin level. The fact is—irrigation water is never wasted! What isn’t used by plants in evapotranspiration (the use of the water by plants) it is used to recharge the basin where ground water is stored.
As developers attempt to develop all the existing agricultural land along the Wasatch Front it is important to understand the benefits of agricultural endeavors. It does improve air quality, agriculture provides a decrease in atmospheric temperatures, andultimately fills our bellies. Don’t be misled by those whose primary motivation is financial when they say that development takes less water than farms.
As a member of the Lehi City Planning Commission for several years the statement was used over and over by eager developersto assure planning commission members there would beadequate water for existing citizens. I contend as did Professor Larsen that this is a gross over-simplification of the water situation. Let’s make decisions based on real science and not over generalizations by developers. We need agricultural land as my 10-year-old granddaughter says often and emphatically, “Grandma, nature heals.”