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Utah governor bans fireworks on state lands, orders more watering cutbacks amid severe drought

Sprinklers water a lawn in Salt Lake City. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has issued his third water restriction in four months.
Sprinklers water a lawn in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 7, 2021. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issues his third water restriction in four months.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Yellow lawns will likely be the norm for the summer as Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued his third water restriction in four months on Tuesday with the state suffering under unprecedented drought conditions.

He also announced a ban on fireworks on all state lands, including in parks, as well as on private lands in unincorporated areas of Utah. Hundreds of wildfires have already been sparked this year, most human caused.

“We are moving out of the pandemic and we’re headed right into another disaster,” Cox said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

More limits on watering lawns at state facilities

Cox’s executive order requires lawn watering at northern state facilities to be reduced to two days per week. A previous order allowed watering three days per week, which is still permitted at southern properties.

Cox is urging local municipalities to adopt similar restrictions for the coming dry, hot summer.

These restrictions follow two similar orders from Cox’s office declaring a statewide drought emergency. A month ago, Cox issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and encouraged water providers to encourage watering at dew point or at night.

Currently, 100% of the state is in drought, 90% is in extreme drought, and over 60% of the state is in exceptional drought. Candice Hasenyager, deputy director at Utah Division of Water Resources, blames much of the worries over water shortages on snowpack not making it to downstream reservoirs.

“2020 was our driest and hottest year,” Hasenyager said. “We had record dry soil. The snow melted, and the soils absorbed all of that run-off.”

Last summer was the driest ever logged in Utah and Nevada since record keeping began 126 years ago, with August the hottest on record in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Experts at the Natural Resources Conservation Service place mountain snowpack runoff at anywhere between 25% and 75% of the usual average. Rivers are reportedly at 50% of normal flow, with reservoir storage sitting at 15% lower than June 2020.

Food Commissioner Craig Buttars described the effect the extreme drought is having on agriculture as “significant,” and said droughts and wildfires are pushing ranchers out of the state as they look for greener pastures.

“Our farmers and ranchers are already looking for opportunities to take their cattle other places to find grazing land,” said Buttars. “They’re already looking for feed, alfafa and grass that they can use to get them through this situation, but it’s very rare and not very abundant. All of these could impact the supplies of food that we have in our grocery stores.”

Cox and Hasenyager encourage Utahns to conserve water by letting their lawns go dormant for the year, trimming their shrubs and trees, and participate in the Utah tradition of “water-shaming” by reporting any neglectful or wasteful watering to their “Hall of Fame or Shame.” This reporting tool can also be used to shine a spotlight on inventive and purposeful water saving.

“Extreme conservation measures are needed by all of us,” said Hasenyager. “We don’t know how long this drought will last. That’s not in our control. But what’s in our control is how we respond and what we do as individuals, families, businesses, institutions and industries to conserve water wherever we can. Water saved today means we will have more tomorrow.”

Fireworks a growing concern in dry conditions

Fire conditions continue to worsen throughout Utah, with the Forest Service reporting over 400 fires in the state this year. Nearly 75% of those fires are human-caused, and 80% of the 12,000 acres burned resulted from human activity.

And that has the governor worried.

“If things continue as they are right now, I would be supportive of a statewide fireworks ban, with a few exceptions in controlled conditions,” Cox said.

Five counties are already in stage 1 fire restrictions, which prohibit open flames not in a permanent fire ring, no campfires in an unimproved area, no smoking unless in an enclosed vehicle or building, and no operating any device with an internal combustion engine without an approved spark arrester.

Jamie Barnes, interim director of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said that her department is still assessing conditions and flagging warnings for the remaining counties.

As of Tuesday evening, several large fires were being fought throughout Utah, including in East Canyon in Morgan County, Bear Canyon in Carbon County, and Mammoth Creek in Garfield County, with East Canyon being described by Utah Fire Info as having “August-like” fire behavior. Ten homes have been evacuated in the East Canyon area and all hiking trails are closed as firefighters try to slow the blaze.