A coalition of outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists hope to persuade local water managers this week to restrict water consumption in Salt Lake and Utah counties throughout the winter.
"We need to initiate voluntary and likely mandatory restrictions on water now to save water through the winter and prepare for the worst next year," said Jeff Appel, a local water attorney and spokesman for the coalition, which includes the Utah Wildlife Leadership Coalition, Utah Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club.Coalition leaders will meet Thursday with water district managers from Salt Lake and Utah counties, along with state and federal water officials. The meeting has been scheduled to discuss what action should be taken to maintain federally mandated water flows on the Provo River while meeting demands of local water districts.
Salt Lake and Utah counties depend on storage in Deer Creek Reservoir, which controls water flow in the Provo River within Provo Canyon, for a large share of their municipal water supplies. In addition to those needs, the federal government must maintain certain water volume in the river to protect the river's fish population.
But a sixth consecutive year of drought in northern Utah has pushed water districts closer to imposing cutbacks in deliveries of Provo River water. As of Friday, Deer Creek Reservoir held 69,326 acre-feet of water, far below its 152,000-acre-feet capacity.
"No one could have expected this," said David Ovard, general manager of the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District.
Appel said the situation wouldn't be so critical if conservation measures were implemented early. But none of the water districts have asked their customers to conserve water until now, he said.
"Until a week ago, people have done what they wanted to," said Bob Nelson, with the Utah Wildlife Leadership Coalition. He was referring to Salt Lake City's request last week that residents voluntarily cut consumption 20 percent.
If the drought continues another year, however, restrictions and conservation may be too little too late. Ovard said recently that cutting consumption in half would only yield an additional 5,000 acre-feet of water on the Provo River.
But that doesn't mean the district won't impose restrictions. "I am not ashamed at all to make people in Salt Lake County go with brown lawns," Ovard said. "Our water is too cheap and not ap-pre-ci-ated."
The district offers no apologies for not cutting back its deliveries during the past six years of unprecedented drought. Ovard explained that the district can't pay off the bonds that financed its extensive distribution system unless it sells water.
Most districts are proud they have been able to avoid cutting back deliveries during a drought. Appel agrees that local water managers have pulled off a miracle, but it won't last much longer.
"They have done their job too well. The problem is they have thought the current year would be the last," he said. "It has resulted in using next year's water now."
Water managers are again banking on a wet winter to meet next year's customer demands and pay the bills. And the National Weather Service is predicting a wetter than normal fall and winter - when the state receives 60 percent of its moisture.
"Based on past history, I think it will turn around this year. It has to," said Bill Alder, meteorologist in charge of the NWS's Salt Lake office. He said it will take two or three years of normal snowpack to fully recover from the drought.
The best-case scenario would be Alder's forecast coming true, along with the Little Dell and Jordanelle dam projects coming on line as scheduled in the next two to four years.
If all of that happens, Appel hopes local water managers won't forget the panic they felt the past six years. In addition to immediate restrictions, he will ask water districts to implement ongoing water conservation campaigns.
"We need to learn from this experience as well as fix the immediate problem," he said.