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A fire danger sign is shown reading “High” in City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City as two people walk by.
Julie Beekman and Sam Hubert walk in City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Utah faces increased wildfire risk as 100% of the state is in drought with 90% in extreme drought.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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As the drought worsens, let’s not be stupid

The summer of thirst has begun.

Maybe you won’t find yourself short of drinking water — we can hope so, anyway — but everything around you won’t be so lucky. Your lawn, your dirty car and the little things you like to keep nice and shiny will start blending into the brown, dusty landscape of the raw and parched desert in which we live.

“We are a special kind of stupid,” was how California Rep. Tom McClintock described Westerners, and perhaps the federal government, at a recent webinar of the Republican members of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

That’s a little harsh, especially coming from a member of Congress. But it was similar, in spirit, to what journalist and author Steven Greenhut told me by phone this week. Greenhut, a free-market advocate, has written a book titled, “Winning the Water Wars: California Can Meet its Water Needs by Promoting Abundance Rather than Managing Scarcity.”

“It seems something as important as this needs long-term planning,” he said, speaking mainly of California. But Utah could strategize better, too.

Because he is a believer in the free market, Greenhut agrees with something I’ve repeated often through the years. The best way to allocate scarce water is to make it more a creature of supply and demand. When the oil producing nations dry up the supply of gasoline, the cost goes up and we use less, he said. But when water becomes scarce, it tends to cost the same as always. We just try to browbeat people into using less, or we levy fines.

And so today, with the onset of summer putting us in the maw of what could be a record-breaking dry summer, the city of Lehi is considering enforcing rules against people watering their lawns on consecutive days. Two such violations could bring a $100 fine. A third could cost $500.

Dave Norman, the city’s Public Works director, told the City Council, “We’re tanking, to be quite honest,” according to the Provo Daily Herald. Spring runoff was nonexistent.

He could have been speaking for every other city in the state, many of which are sure to follow Lehi’s example. Already, according to the West Jordan Journal, officials from the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District have met with West Jordan leaders to explain why green lawns may be a thing of the past.

And on Wednesday, the Utah County Commission declared a state of emergency because of drought conditions there.

The situation is serious. As Gov. Spencer Cox said recently, “It’s really bad. It’s as bad as we’ve seen. And we’ve seen some bad ones.”

But instead of relying on the uneven procedure of trying to enforce penalties — Norman told KSL city employees are well-informed of the requirements and are watching — an aggressive price structure by water districts would do the job without any fines.

After all, no one has to police how much gasoline people use as that supply becomes scarce.

“The price of water should reflect the price of providing the water,” Greenhut said. “Raise it when it’s in short supply and lower it when it’s in abundance.”

That’s easier said than done in Utah, where many water districts are subsidized by property taxes.

And it’s only part of the solution. The state could do more to build new water resources. It could, as politicians are beginning to suggest, do more to encourage people from turning lawns into desert landscapes.

And lawmakers took a big step recently by allocating funds to begin metering secondary water usage.

A severe drought spares no one. As people often point out to me, 85% of Utah’s water is used by agriculture, something from which all people benefit.

As a recent New York Times report noted, the drought recently forced federal officials to close the gates that provide water to farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Project in southern Oregon. They did this to preserve fish habitat, which has led to threats of violence and talk of forcing the gates open.

None of this is particularly new. The American West always has tested the limits of human endurance. The state of Utah provides historical water charts at drought.gov. Even in the 1800s, years of plentiful rain were followed by bone-dry droughts.

A changing climate and population growth may make the current drought longer and more severe, especially as the Great Salt Lake, a vital ecological catalyst for storms and mountain snow, approaches record low levels.

Which is to say the summer of thirst could get ugly before it’s done, testing the resourcefulness of everyone from homeowners to politicians.

Jay Evensen is a columnist for the Deseret News.

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