Creativity, cooperation and sound stewardship have characterized Utah's management of its precious water resources since 1847, when Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley and diverted the waters of City Creek to plant crops. That tradition continues with a bill passed during the legislative session that allows water-rights holders for the first time ever to work directly with nonprofit fishing groups to protect stream flows for native trout and other wildlife.
In the past, water-rights holders could not use those rights to protect or enhance stream flows unless they sold, leased or donated that water to the state. Otherwise, they risked forfeiting their right, even if they saw real economic or other value in doing so. These restrictions stifled innovation and prevented farmers and ranchers from working together to improve stream flows.
The Utah Legislature changed that when, with overwhelming support, it passed HB117 Instream Flows to Protect Trout Habitat, a bill sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom of Orem and Sen. Peter Knudson of Brigham City. The bill sets up a 10-year pilot program to prove whether these private leases can benefit fisheries, water-rights holders and rural communities the way they have in other Western states such as Montana.
In recent years, farmers' or ranchers' financial return on their land for investing in crops and livestock has dropped to 2 percent below inflation while expenses continue to rise. That means that those who love to farm or ranch must often find another job to support the farm or turn to creative sources of income, including fishing or hunting programs. This bill helps accomplish that by giving farmers and ranchers greater freedom to manage their irrigation water to support their operations and improve their bottom line. The leases contemplated by the bill often involve in-kind exchanges, where a fishing group funds critical improvements and labor-saving devices in exchange for a little water to sustain fish during critical times of the year.
The legislation recognizes that many of the state's smaller and more fragile fisheries face a host of challenges, including drought, habitat loss and increasing demands for water. It creates an opportunity to meet those challenges by empowering sportsmen and water users to work together for their mutual benefit. Such partnerships lie at the heart of the bill, and the program's success will ultimately turn on the ability of these interests to work together to find creative win-win solutions.What's truly significant about passage of this law is what it says about Utah. True to Utah's character and heritage, this opens the door to effective partnerships between the farmers and ranchers who own much of the land and water of the state and the sportsmen and their families who enjoy it. It reflects a recognition among water-rights holders and the conservation community that solutions to many of the challenges we face can best be crafted on the ground and through private, market-based solutions. In short, the solutions to many of our most pressing challenges can be found by working together.
Tim Hawkes is with Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit sportsmen's group with approximately 4,000 members in Utah.