Trends and Issues that Define Utah’s Water

Trends and Issues that Define Utah’s Water


Lake with mountains and rock

Trends and Issues that Define Utah’s Water


Water makes life in Utah possible by supporting the state’s residents and visitors, environmental amenities, agricultural and food production systems, increasingly diverse industries, and growing economy. Sustaining these activities requires collective efforts to efficiently and equitably manage limited and variable water resources that are affected by droughts and a changing climate. These efforts will benefit from cooperation within Utah’s watersheds and across state boundaries in shared watersheds. Increasing Utah’s capacities to track water availability, conserve water, enhance water quality, restore aquatic ecosystems, and adapt to future uncertainties are critical to securing Utah’s water future.

Water-related work stretches across Utah State University and the state, where a broad community engages in water research and outreach. Water experts work in disciplines such as biology, ecology, engineering, geology, hydrology, policy, economics, and social sciences. Researchers collaborate with stakeholders throughout Utah to help sustain water resources to meet both human and ecosystem needs.

Tracking Changes in Utah's Water Availability


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Water availability in Utah is predicted to decrease. This is due to changing snow patterns and increased evaporation related to increases in average air temperatures.

The amount and distribution of snow and rain is changing across Utah. Snowpacks are declining, and rain falls less often, but with higher intensity. The extended drought across Utah has resulted in unprecedented low streamflow and lake levels. Many Utah reservoirs and lakes have fallen to record low levels. Like recorded historic precipitation rates, future rain and snow will vary cyclically, and streamflow and groundwater will follow these patterns. However, due to increasing air temperatures and the resulting increases in evaporation from reservoirs and plants, streamflow and groundwater recharge are decreasing in disproportionate amounts. Population and industrial growth also increase water demand. USU researchers can model changes in Utah’s annual water supply. Those findings can be used to guide management decisions.

Decline in snow water aver 30 year graph

Figure 1

Snow water equivalent (inches) over the past 70 years depicting a 30% decline over the past 30 years.

Quantifying Water Efficiency and Conservation


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Planning for Utah's water future requires strategies to increase water use efficiency and conservation in agricultural and urban uses.

Utah’s population and economic growth projections show water demand exceeding current reliable supply in the next two decades, unless we increase conservation and reallocate water currently used in one sector to another use. Two areas where significant water savings and reallocations can occur are in agriculture and urban landscaping. We can develop and use drought-tolerant and low-water crop and nursery plant varieties. Utahns can also improve irrigation practices, which can lead to increases in water use efficiencies. Conservation gains can also be realized in water storage, delivery, and reuse systems by using new technologies and management approaches. USU researchers work with conservancy districts, municipalities, irrigation companies, the green industry, agricultural producers, and urban residents to address these issues.

water conservation map

Figure 2

WaterMAPS™ calculates Landscape Irrigation Ratios to assess capacity to conserve water applied to urban landscapes.

View WaterMAPS™ samples at

Enhancing Utah's Water Quality


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Maintaining and improving the quality of Utah's water is vital in supporting Utah's population, economy, and environment. Poor quality diminishes the quantity of already scarce water supplies.

Water quality standards protect Utah’s rivers, streams, canals, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands, and ponds for beneficial uses. That includes water for drinking, recreation, fish and other wildlife, and agriculture. Waterbodies are protected and monitored to ensure they meet water quality standards for the safety of people, wildlife, and the environment. Across the state, just 23% of rivers, streams, and canals and 32% of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds are fully supporting beneficial uses or show no signs of impairment. Environmental changes have increased the stressors on water quality. Those changes increase the transport of pollutants and reduce natural retention and filtration processes. Increasing air temperatures and extreme weather events also impact ecosystem processes that help address water quality problems.

USU researchers are evaluating many avenues for restoring and protecting the state's water quality. Green infrastructure and soil restoration can treat urban runoff. Beaver ponds and beaver dams (analogs) can improve water quality. Wetland restoration can mitigate the effects of invasive species.

watershed assesment for Utah map

Figure 3

Map of Utah's watershed assessment of water quality, indicating assessment category for beneficial uses — 2021

Data: Utah Division of Water Quality Integrated Report, 2021

Managing Utah's Watersheds for an Uncertain Future


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Utah's major rivers are shared with other states, and risks from drought and climate change have created extraordinary water challenges. Utah's water management strategies must be adaptable to a wide range of possible future scenarios.

The Colorado River is a highly visible indicator of the abundance or scarcity of water in Utah and the region, as are the Great Salt Lake, and the Weber and Bear rivers. Water managers face uncertain future demands and streamflows, but they know that uncertainty is amplified by long-term changes in air temperatures and weather patterns. Controlling future demands on rivers and reservoirs may require limiting growth in some areas and greater use of conservation practices in others. Developing management strategies for wide-ranging water use scenarios can help account for the uncertainties we face by identifying opportunities for water use reduction in the region. The Utah Legislature has taken positive initial steps in funding water conservation research and modifying state laws to allow water banking. Researchers can help Utah water managers detect supply and demand changes earlier, reduce vulnerabilities, and craft more adaptive operations.

Map of Utah's major surface water river basins.

Figure 4

Map of Utah's major surface water river basins. — 2021


Restoring Water for Wetlands and Wetlands for Water


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Wetlands are the nexus between land and water environments that sustain fish, wildlife, and humans. Ensuring that wetlands have sufficient water supports their ecological economic, recreational, and aesthetic benefits.

Wetlands make up an integral part of Utah’s water resources, sustaining livelihoods and highly valued recreation opportunities, even though they are less than 1% of Utah’s land area. They have outsized effects on Utahns by cleaning our water, protecting us from flooding, mitigating the impacts of drought, providing habitat for hunter-prized waterfowl, and replenishing groundwater. Wetland-dependent recreational activities are important to Utah’s economy and heritage. To sustain wetlands and the services they provide, we should recover lost wetlands. By restoring wetlands across the state, such as along the Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, and many rivers and streams, we will benefit from the abilities of wetlands to sustain water for lives and livelihoods.



Figure 5

Management activities such as controlling invasive species like phragmites (left) and restoring beaver dams (right) help to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems and sustain the multiple benefits they provide.



Water plays a vital role in sustaining the ecosystems, economy, and the quality of life that Utahns enjoy. A secure water future for Utah lies in recognizing that growth must occur within the limits of currently available and reasonably assured foreseeable water supplies. Water management strategies must adequately account for numerous contingencies of climate variability. Resources and technologies to measure, monitor, distribute and conserve water, as well as new tools such as water banking and aquifer storage and recharge, can help equip the state to deal with these contingencies. Integrative and flexible approaches also are needed to effectively

coordinate management of different water sources, water quantity and quality, and diverse water uses. Enhancing people’s abilities to work together in addressing the state’s water challenges is especially important through approaches that foster collaboration, stakeholder engagement, and public involvement. All of these activities can aid our ability to adapt and become more resilient to short and long-term changes in water availability. USU researchers and educators will continue to work throughout the state help to develop strategies and practices, engage with managers, and inform policy to support Utah’s stewardship, utilization, and protection of its scarce water resources.