Land & Environment

Muddy Waters: Understanding Utahns' Varied Perspectives on Water Banking and Security

By Lael Gilbert |

As Utah enters a third decade of drought, leaders are interested in water banking — but a critical step is to specifically define the objectives and values they want the system to serve, new research finds. (USU/Joanna Endter-Wada)

When things are as complex, entrenched in history and as high-stakes as water rights in the arid West, making any change to the system is tough. But as Utah enters a third decade of drought, with record-low levels in reservoirs and lakes, parched landscapes, growing populations and an agricultural community under pressure, change is inevitable. Utah leaders now grapple with difficult tradeoffs and dire consequences of water insecurity and are pursuing the strategy of water banking.

The current water rights system is built on the “law of the river,” a motley collection of compacts, laws, treaties, court decisions and decrees — nothing that especially lends itself to flexibility. But water reallocation through water banking could influence water security in Utah at multiple scales, according to recently published research from Clint Carney, Joanna Endter-Wada and Lisa Welsh from the Department of Environment and Society in the Quinney College of Natural Resources.

Water banking is a voluntary tool that assists temporary transactions of water rights by pulling together components of prior appropriation law with market-based incentives in order to fulfill specific policy objectives. Under a water banking system, owners of water rights could temporarily lease their rights to those who can’t afford to be without water. Where they are used, water banking systems work for drought mitigation, to address aquifer overdraft, to negotiate competing uses, provide more water to meet ecosystem and water quality needs, and meet interstate commitments.

“It’s a way to address the needs of agriculture, cities and the environment in advance of a water crisis and has potential to increase water security in Utah,” Carney said. “The problem is how, exactly, to define water security — there is wide variation in how people from different groups relate to water and think about that term.”

The team interviewed farmers, water managers, environmental groups, agency employees, lawyers and legislators, and asked them to describe the challenges they face concerning water, as well as the motivations, opportunities and risks behind creating a water bank in Cache County and northern Utah.

The idea of water security, the researchers found, was defined largely in context of values the users prioritized, and on the scale from which they saw the system, demonstrating diversity in how people connected to water — whether it be economic, ecosystem or egalitarian. Thus, the idea of water banking resulted in very diverse (and even contradictory) definitions.

A critical next step in developing a water banking system would be to specifically define the societal objectives and values leaders would like water banking to serve, rather than leaving it open-ended, Endter-Wada said. No one formula exists for water bank design and operation — they vary across the West from locally managed entities to those operated at the state level, she said. There are numerous context-specific factors that can influence the feasibility of forming water banks and the capacity of water right holders to participate.

This research is part of a larger project examining how water reallocation through water banking influences water security in the Western U.S. at multiple scales. It appeared in a featured collection on water security recently published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association and has been presented to international audiences who grapple with drought conundrums similar to those found in Utah. The research was funded by the USU Extension Water Initiative, Cache Water District, Utah Division of Water Resources, and Utah Division of Water Rights.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Joanna Endter-Wada
Environment and Society
S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources


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