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How bad is the Western drought? New study says worst in 1,200 years. You read that right

Study predicts drought will continue this year

SHARE How bad is the Western drought? New study says worst in 1,200 years. You read that right
Low water levels are pictured in Lake Powell in Page, Arizona

Low water levels are pictured in Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. A study claims the western U.S. is in the midst of its worst drought in 1,200 years.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

It hasn’t been this dry in Utah and the rest of the western United States in 12 centuries.

That finding was released Monday as part of a new study published in Nature Climate Changeand led by Park Williams, a bio-climatologist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

While there was a time in the 1500s when soil moisture content was drier than that of 2000 to 2018, tree ring evidence shows that 2000 to 2021 was the driest 22-year period since at least the year 800.

And the worse news is that the drought will continue this year, eclipsing the megadrought of the 1500s.

“At 22 (years) long, the turn-of-the-twenty-first-century drought is highly likely to continue through a 23rd year and match the duration of the shortest of the reconstructed megadroughts,” the paper said.

Soil moisture content was the driest on record in Utah in 2020, stealing an already abysmally low spring runoff. That led to depleted reservoirs, with some that are now at 30-year lows. Lake Powell is a third full, the most empty it has been since it started to fill and Great Salt Lake hit its lowest recorded level in decades last October.

Challenged water supplies forced drastic action last summer, with restrictions put into place across cities and agriculture taking reductions well.

Gov. Spencer Cox had declared a drought emergency by March 2021 and in the summer, he implored all residents — regardless of faith — to seek divine intervention.

Cox, in his budget, recommended $500 million for water conservation, including a huge chunk dedicated to the metering of secondary water.

A measure to require mandatory metering on connections by 2030 is working its way through the Utah Legislature, but not without some opposition.

“I keep hearing that metering saves water. … But other than just knowing how many gallons I’m using, how does that save water?” Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, asked during floor debate on the proposed law Monday.

“I struggle with this requirement in my community because most of the people around me and myself included live on one-acre lots and the burden of this cost is going to go directly to the homeowner, some of whom can afford it and many of whom cannot.”

HB242, sponsored by House Majority Assistant Whip Val Peterson, R-Orem, urged support for the legislation, citing data that shows simply reporting water use helps users significantly conserve. He said all Utahns need to do their part to help Utah sustain its future. 

“We’re all going to have some pain in this process,” Peterson said. “We are in a generational drought. We are the second most arid state in the nation. We need to have accountability for every drop of water in this state if we’re going to continue to have the economic growth and prosperity that we’ve had.”

The bill passed 58-14 and now moves to the Senate.

The National Weather Service in Salt Lake City is tracking a “weather disturbance,” according to its Twitter account, but the outlook for any measurable precipitation for Tuesday is tepid.

The storm, however it shapes up, will be the most weather activity the state has had for roughly the last 30 days as it has experienced above average temperatures and below normal precipitation.

The projected high for Monday, in fact, was near 60 degrees.

All across the West, states are struggling with the effects of extreme drought. California has endured catastrophic wildfires, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said 17 states under its purview are facing low reservoir levels. Seattle recorded its hottest temperature on record, 108 degrees, in June 2021.

Utah agencies are now combing through a list of new dams to hold more storage, but Mother Nature needs to turn on the tap.

More than 93% of the state remains in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.