SALT LAKE CITY — A major new report details some big progress but also significant challenges Utah faces with its environment.

The report was prepared for Governor Spencer Cox and members of the Utah State Legislature by Utah State University's Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air. It was made public on Thursday and highlights ongoing issues Utah faces with the Great Salt Lake and air quality. It also proposes some policy solutions for many environmental issues.

Overall, the report found that Utah is seeing effects of a changing climate despite a record-breaking year of snow. In fact, we'd need at least six more years like it to catch up for water losses at Lake Powell and Lake Mead and USU scientists aren't forecasting that.

"Over time you have warmer winters," said Dr. Brian Steed, the head of the institute. "We have warmer summers and that we have summers that are warmer, longer."

USU researchers noted that while the 2022-2023 winter was colder than average, it did not break the trend of rising winter temperatures in Utah going back to 1948.

When it comes to water conservation, Utah has made great strides.

"We're getting better at conserving water and certainly it’s on all of our minds in Utah," said Dr. Sarah Null, a professor of watershed sciences at USU. "We need to get better at tracking and accounting for what we’ve conserved."

Dr. Null said that includes better "water shepherding" to ensure that what is conserved makes it to places it's needed like the Great Salt Lake.

The Great Salt Lake presents a big ecological challenge for the state, the report continues to point out. Since the lake hit its lowest point in recorded history last year, it continues to present a significant threat to the health of people and wildlife in northern Utah. Researchers found dust pollution will become an even bigger problem for the state as more lakebed is exposed with PM10 levels rising.

"On a really dusty day — no surprise — you’re breathing about 10-20 times more dust that’s just a nuisance dust and there’s also some elements in that," said Dr. Randy Martin, an associate research professor at Utah State University.

In that dust is dangerous minerals like arsenic, but USU has found enhanced levels of magnesium, calcium, vanadium and strontium above expected levels. In response, Utah's Department of Environmental Quality has convened a working group to coordinate and sample more areas to get an idea of how widespread the problem can be.

Utah has seen good progress when it comes to air quality. The report found fewer inversions and "red air" days when state officials urge people to curb unnecessary driving and travel. However, the data collected also found Utahns chose to ignore pleas to curb vehicle emissions on "yellow air" days and, in some cases, drove more to avoid being in pollution.

The Uintah Basin this past winter recorded a surge in winter ozone condition as a result of increased oil and gas production in the area.

"We do have more work to do on air quality. We know that," Gov. Cox told FOX 13 News when asked about USU's research at his monthly news conference on PBS Utah.

The governor said the state was working to address many of the report's findings and recommendations. He pointed to the state's increasing diversification of its energy portfolio.

"In improving air quality, it also helps with climate change. So that’s a big piece of that, the emissions piece of that," he said. "We’re working on expanding our energy sources across the state. We’ve talked about nuclear energy, that’s going to be a big part as we head into the 2030s."

Gov. Cox suggested the state will pursue nuclear power further in Utah. Rocky Mountain Power is involved in small-scale nuclear power experiments with an eye toward re-purposing retired coal plants in rural Utah.

The report praised Utah's efforts to reduce wildfires and educate people to avoid sparking them. It also proposed that the state get more into biochar — which is converting waste wood into a charcoal-like product throw low oxygen burning. It found benefits for soil and water retention. The report also suggested communities create more trails along canals for multiple benefits of reducing water losses and providing outdoor activity spaces.

The report also found Utahns are concerned about the environment. A survey conducted by USU found more than half of Utahns polled were very concerned about drought and a lack of water, poor air quality and the drying Great Salt Lake. But roughly 18% of those same Utahns believe politicians are doing enough or too much about it. USU researchers said the data indicates many Utahns want their elected officials to do more.

In the audience at Thursday's event were some members of the Utah legislature. Rep. Paul Cutler, R-Centerville, said the report is helpful in solving the big issues.

"With good data and the people we have in Utah, we can make progress on these things," he told FOX 13 News.

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

Related Articles