With more questions than answers, rural Utah looks ahead to a parched future amid explosive growth.
This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Stan Jensen lives and farms on a road that carries his family name.
Generations of Jensens have grown alfalfa here. Yet years of drought have left this Centerfield, Utah, legacy with a lean harvest. So Jensen, a former engineer, is working to incorporate new techniques borrowed from organic farming and permaculture in order to reinvent the family business for a dry future.
“If we were to design Utah now we’d do it differently,” Jensen said. “We’d put farmland in the Salt Lake Valley, and we’d put our population center somewhere in eastern Utah on less fertile soil.”
Still, populations are booming throughout rural Utah. Once-sleepy farm towns look more and more like communities along the Wasatch Front. Even Centerfield, which the 2020 census shows shrank by 2% over the last decade, has seen a spurt of new growth in 2021. How that growth squares with drying aquifers and reservoirs and shuttering fossil fuel power plants remains an open question.
Convening rural Utah
Growth, change and the questions they raise for rural Utah dominate conversations among farmers, ranchers and miners in diners from Garden City to Bluff. At the recent One Utah Summit held at Southern Utah University, lawmakers, energy executives, tech leaders and entrepreneurs weighed in.
“This used to be a pretty small, southern Utah-centric event,” said Steven Black, director of the Utah Manufacturing Extension Center at the University of Utah, referencing the large crowd at the event’s opening, outdoor social. “In the past few years it has grown significantly. Especially with Governor Cox’s focus on rural Utah.”
Attendees packed into the SUU Randall L. Jones Theater the next day to hear from the governor, lieutenant governor, executives from Rocky Mountain Power and even Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Holland, originally from St. George, spoke mostly about southern Utah’s past. He noted the “ruggedness of the country” helped shape the region’s character. “That meant hard work. That meant no free passes. Whatever you got, you earned.”
The tension between past and future was a common theme at the Summit.
In Hunter and Huntington, Utah’s two coal-fired power plants are scheduled to retire over the next 25 years. Gary Hoogeveen, CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, discussed a plan to transition these plants to advanced nuclear power, based on a demonstration project underway in Wyoming. The Wyoming project seeks to retain — and retrain — many of the workers from a retiring coal plant. “That is our hope for Hunter and Huntington, so stay tuned for many, many years,” said Hoogeveen.
Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson spoke at the summit of the need to invest in infrastructure in an evolving rural Utah. She has concerns over growth in the 12 rural counties she visited in the past two weeks.
“Projects in rural Utah are not always going to pencil the way they do along the Wasatch Front,” Henderson said, but straight cost analysis should not stand in the way of infrastructure investments, she explained, including her recent initiative to help connect the Navajo community of Westwater to basic water and power.
Agriculture’s uncharted future
Dave Chen, CEO & Chairman at Equilibrium Capital, which invests in and manages sustainable agriculture properties, said he sees the potential for Utah to play a critical role in the future of agriculture.
“Agriculture will change more in the next ten years than it has in the past ten thousand,” said Chen, who also serves on the advisory council to The Tribune’s Innovation Lab.
That rapid change is a source of excitement but also apprehension — particularly for struggling family farmers like Jensen.
While Jensen continues to adapt his farming practices, he still must grapple with bills and a mostly empty hay shed.
“We’ll survive,” he said, “and hope next year is better.”