Cambridge Study on Central Wasatch Watershed Publishes

A recently published academic paper written by Cambridge University researchers in collaboration with Salt Lake City’s Department of Public Utilities discusses the importance of the management strategy of Utah’s Wasatch watershed for protecting future water supplies in the American West.

The study, published in the December edition of the academic journal Ecosystem Services, states that Salt Lake City’s management of the Wasatch watershed is an important contemporary example of watershed protection, yet is largely absent from the academic and gray literature on the conservation of ecosystems and natural capital.

“It’s absence in the ecosystem services literature results in an incomplete perspective on interventions to secure watershed ecosystem services and limits the literature and potentially policy discussions in relation to alternative watershed conservation approaches,” said Libby Blanchard, the lead author of the study and PhD candidate at Cambridge.  

Laura Briefer, Deputy Director at Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, and a co-author of the study, conducted a portion of the research in 2013 while a graduate student in the University of Utah’s Master of Public Administration program.  The partnership with Cambridge ensued after Briefer met Bhaskar Vira, the study’s third co-author, at a recent International Union of Forest Researchers professional conference in Salt Lake City.

“The study states that the management of the Wasatch watershed provides a third, yet under-recognized, successful alternative conservation strategy for water resources” said Briefer.

In the American West, unprecedented droughts have caused extreme water shortages. The current drought in California and across the West is entering its fourth year, with precipitation and water storage reaching record low levels.

Such drought and water scarcity is only likely to increase with climate change, and the chances of a “megadrought” –one that lasts 35 years or longer—affecting the Southwest and central Great Plains by 2100 are above 80 percent if greenhouse gas emissions projections are not mitigated. Leaders from around the world, including Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, gathered the past two weeks in Paris at the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to discuss such mitigation measures.  

Droughts are currently ranked second in the US in terms of national weather-related economic impacts, with annual losses just shy of $9 billion annually. Such economic impacts will likely only increase as the century progresses.

As the West faces more frequent and severe droughts, the successful protection of watersheds for the ecosystem services of water capture, storage, and delivery they provide will be increasingly important, just as the sufficient and effective protection of watersheds becomes more challenging.

Thus, “awareness of alternative, successful strategies of watershed protection is critically important. The management of the Wasatch is one such strategy that should be more widely recognized amongst policymakers and researchers alike seeking effective solutions” says Bhaskar Vira, a co-author of the study and the director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute.  

While regulation and market-based incentives are widely seen as the two dominant mechanisms for protecting water sources, little attention is paid to alternative solutions in the academic literature on ecosystem services and the value of investing in natural capital.

The Wasatch management strategy, on the other hand, uses non-exclusionary regulation and zoning to protect the urban water supply and does not involve any market-based incentives component. Thus, the Wasatch watershed’s management strategy is a successful example of how natural capital can be instrumentally and economically valued and conserved via regulatory approaches without requiring the use of financialized transactions and payment mechanisms. 

The authors write: “While regulatory exclusion is often thought of as the only viable alternative to market-based incentives in managing ecosystem services and watersheds in particular, Salt Lake City has been able to preserve the natural capital that protects its watershed while allowing heavy recreational and public use (but imposing restrictions on allowable uses). This permitted use, socially negotiated, helps mitigate the potential tradeoffs associated with protection activities.”