Who will tell farmers to conserve water?

We’ve known for quite some time that the vast majority of Utah’s water use goes to agriculture. There’s a compelling case to be made for modernizing water distribution systems and farming techniques to greatly reduce this usage. So far, though, nobody seems to want to be the person to start pushing it forward. The only public bill so far on conserving water usage, SB28, only addresses metering and tiered usage for culinary water use, not for farms and ranches. As much as we don’t want to impose new costs on these low-margin businesses, why aren’t we at least talking with them about cutting back?

Who will tell farmers to conserve water?
By Jesse Harris

I’m sure part of it is that we have a national mythos about farming and farmers. The United States started as a largely agrarian society. We consider farmers the common man because until well into the industrial revolution, a plurality of us worked in agriculture. Even though agriculture currently accounts for less than 1% of both state employment and GDP, it is the lifeblood of many rural counties, my own included.

But then again, we have less than 1% of the employment and economy of the state commanding around 80% of its water usage. There’s no question that water is going to be used in higher proportions by farming. Without it, we probably aren’t going to be eating all that well.

Conserving water isn’t an urban versus rural fight. It is in the self-interest of farmers to make sure that water supplies are used smartly to ensure their own future. This means moving well beyond “use it or lose it” water rights, beyond simplistic “give me a bigger share” policies. It means building smarter distribution systems that don’t waste as much water. It means educating farmers on using less water with the same or better results. (Yes, I’m looking at those of you watering fields at 2PM on a hot July afternoon.) And yes, it probably means using some kind of metering and tiered pricing to reduce usage.

While some people may bristle at the idea, we’re probably going to have to either subsidize or fully cover the cost of implementing water savings in the agricultural sector. If it’s any consolation, this is probably a lot less expensive (and combative) than trying to wrestle away water from other states or develop new water sources. The only question now is who is going to take the lead and when.

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