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Hot weather and little rain: What do we do now?

Utah faces extreme or exceptional drought conditions, the most serious kind of drought recognized by the National Weather Service.

Jordanelle Reservoir has low water levels in spring of 2021.
Low water levels are pictured in the Jordanelle Reservoir on Thursday, May 6, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As we enter the summer months, Utah’s ongoing drought and triple-digit temperatures are rightfully catching the public’s attention, prompting many to give serious thought to their water consumption.

We must reaffirm and even accelerate our commitment to water conservation in order to sustain our state’s economic vitality and preserve the quality of life that makes Utah such a great place to call home.

Just how bad is it?

Poor snowpack, bone dry soils and lack of summer thunderstorms have all combined to push Utah — already the second-driest state in the nation — to the point that nearly the entire state faces extreme or exceptional drought conditions, the most serious kind of drought recognized by the National Weather Service. As a result, our reservoirs are drying up, and both Lake Powell and the Great Salt Lake will reach record low levels this summer.

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District spring flows are the lowest they’ve been in the 75 years they have been tracked. In a typical year, Weber Basin stores 220,000 acre-feet of water, mostly from captured runoff sources. This year, that number is down to 7,000 acre-feet or a mere 3% of average.

One acre-foot is the equivalent of approximately 326,000 gallons. By my math, we’re about 69.4 billion gallons of water short of where we should be in that district alone. For reference, the Weber district provides water for over 700,000 people in northern Utah, approximately 24% of our total population. It stores two years’ worth of water in its reservoirs when full.

More than ever, such dire conditions will test our commitment to conserve and protect Utah’s precious water supplies.

Be drought proud

We all like a green lawn, but it takes much less water than many people realize to keep grass healthy, even through the summer months. Already, state facilities have cut back to watering two days per week, and the governor has challenged all state water districts to do the same. When it comes to lawns across our state this summer, the message is clear: Brown is the new green.

So go ahead and show those brown spots. Be drought proud. The lawn will recover in the fall, and, more importantly, we will bank precious water that we may need desperately for homes, farms and businesses later.

Being water wise helps, and I encourage you to visit slowtheflow.org to find information on everything from optimal lawn watering to landscaping tips. You can even access rebates for investments you make in our shared conservation efforts. We can all do more to conserve water, and that starts with recognizing that small changes can make a big difference.

Water supply

Optimizing Utah’s water supply continues to be a critical issue, one that the Utah House of Representatives has been working on for many years. During the 2021 legislative session, I encouraged House members to get serious about improving agricultural and municipal water systems, as well as making progress on key water projects that remain vital to the state and its future. I’m happy to report we took important steps in the right direction.

The Colorado River Compact allocates more water to Utah than we currently take, and the process to change that is underway. We passed legislation to reach out to our neighboring states and work toward a solution that will ensure our state and its citizens are treated fairly.

Working on infrastructure

In a special session held in May, the Legislature accepted $1.7 billion from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. These funds will be used to invest in several areas including affordable housing, talent acquisition, technology infrastructure and addressing our water challenges.

Improving aging pipelines, sewers and dams, as well as new conservation technologies, will all be key to our ability to make the most of every drop of water we have in the decades to come.

Already, we have dedicated $280 million (including $100 million this year) for water development and conservation grants. Those grants will accelerate key efforts like secondary water metering, optimizing the use of agricultural water, reducing evaporative losses, building and replacing leaky and aging pipes and other infrastructure, new source development, dam safety, and wastewater treatment. Better water systems allow us to preserve and stretch our precious water supplies.

It’s no secret, Utah is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, and that brings both challenges and opportunities. While increased demand for water in the face of record-breaking drought presents a daunting challenge, I am confident the people of our state will work together to meet that challenge and ensure we continue to enjoy the high quality of life that makes Utah such a great place to live.

Brad Wilson is the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives.