A deepening drought in southwestern Utah has prompted Washington County Water Conservancy District officials to urge customers to voluntarily cut back on water use.

Especially hard hit by continuing dry weather are the region's cattle ranchers, who have watched forage and watering holes disappear while area rivers flow at lower than normal levels."We've been able to get along to this point," said Stanley Esplin, who runs cattle south of Colorado City, Ariz. "But it's starting to look pretty serious."

Since October, St. George precipitation is less than half of normal for the period. The 0.33 inches of rain the city received during a four-day period about a week ago has done little to improve conditions.

The scarcity of rain follows light winter snowfall in the high-elevation areas. The Virgin River is at a fraction of its usual spring runoff, said Ron Thompson, water district manager.

"In the years I've been here, I don't know of a year that we had absolutely no spring runoff," Thompson said. "That's what it has been this year."

Although farmers have the benefit of stored irrigation water, ranchers have no such safety net.

"We're just kind of holding out," said rancher Lavar Foremaster.

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Cedar City has done better at 83 percent of normal rainfall since October, according to the Utah Climate Center. The city received 0.73 inches of rain during recent storms.

Gov. Mike Leavitt has declared a drought disaster for San Juan County. Washington County rainfall has been as scarce as in San Juan, but ranchers here are better equipped to haul water and take other measures, said Adrian Hinton, Utah State University Extension educator.

Many run cattle on the Arizona Strip, which has almost no natural water sources even in normal years.

However, Washington could seek a state disaster declaration in about a month if the drought continues, Hinton said.

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