The rain that fell over the Memorial Day weekend was a blessing. It watered lawns and added 16 inches to the snowpack in some mountain locations.
But it wasn’t nearly enough to push Utah out of an historic drought.
As of last week, 71.9% of Utah was under extreme drought conditions. That’s an improvement over the “exceptional drought” conditions that covered much of the state last year, but it’s not good by any stretch of the imagination. The drought.gov website reports that the first three months of 2022 represented the third driest such period in 128 years of record-keeping. Included in that period was the 25th driest April ever recorded.
A near-normal May wasn’t enough to mitigate this. As an example, KSL reported that Salt Lake City was 2.41 inches below a 30-year average of springtime rain before this weekend’s storms. Now, it is 1.55 inches below.
Adding this year’s drought on top of 20 previous years of mostly dry conditions has brought the state, and much of the American West, to a difficult position.
Local water districts and municipal governments may soon be faced with necessary decisions. A year ago, in a Deseret News opinion piece, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson urged people to be “drought proud” and to “go ahead and show those brown spots” on lawns. It may be time now to mandate brown lawns by imposing outdoor watering restrictions.
Water districts may want to urge conservation through greatly increased water rates, adding an unpleasant, but necessary, new aspect to the inflation problem. In many Utah water districts, the true cost of water is blunted somewhat by property tax subsidies. Some districts rely on this tax base to fund long-term projects. That shouldn’t preclude them from instituting more aggressively tiered rate structures that greatly reduce overconsumption.
At the same time, however, they should take care to protect those who can least afford higher rates, perhaps tying them to property values, as the Utah Foundation suggested in a series of studies in 2019.
The cost of water includes much more than just what comes through the tap. It involves providing enough water for fighting fires, flood control and many other uses. Governments may decide to reduce recreational water consumption, but water’s many essential uses cannot be compromised.
Most of all, however, coping with, and surviving, this long-term drought will require a personal buy-in and commitment from each Utah resident. It will require a culture change. Water must be seen as a precious and dwindling resource and treated with care. Water experts say the average household’s showers account for only 17% of a home’s water usage, behind washing machines and toilets. But people could help the situation by limiting all three. The largest household usage, however, involves lawns and gardens.
The largest share of Utah’s water — 85% — is used for agricultural purposes. Limiting this usage might severely impact Utah’s economy and local food supplies, but agricultural concerns, too, must find ways to increase efficiency, whether through building concrete-lined canals or other means.
The statistics are sobering. The Utah Division of Water Resources said, as of last week, “99.47% of the state is in severe drought or worse, with 55.67% of Utah in extreme drought.” The snowpack was at 75% of a typical year.
In addition, 18 of the state’s 45 largest reservoirs were under 55% of capacity, and “overall statewide storage is 63% of capacity.” That compares with 67% at this time last year.
Last weekend’s storms may have helped the situation a bit, but not enough.
This is serious. Water is not optional. Everyone in the state needs to consider what he or she can do to help.