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People watch a public fireworks display at Liberty Park on July 24, 2018.

People watch a public fireworks display at Liberty Park on July 24, 2018. The Salt Lake City Council voted against a $25,000 budget proposal for Fourth of July and Pioneer Day firework sat jordan and Liberty parks this summer.

Carter Williams, KSL.com

Why Salt Lake City won’t sponsor public fireworks displays this July

SHARE Why Salt Lake City won’t sponsor public fireworks displays this July
SHARE Why Salt Lake City won’t sponsor public fireworks displays this July

There may be city-sponsored Fourth of July and Pioneer Day events in Salt Lake City this summer, but don't expect there to be fireworks.

The Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday voted 4-to-3, against a $25,000 budget item to supply fireworks for any holiday festivities, citing drought and air quality concerns. The city has typically sponsored public fireworks displays at Jordan Park and Liberty Park, respectively.

The council will instead decide on how else to spend the money in relation to the two city-sponsored holiday events sometime in the near future. The decision doesn't affect private, business-sponsored fireworks displays, including events at Smith's Ballpark.

The holiday fireworks budget item was already in question based on conversations during previous council work sessions. Then, during Tuesday afternoon's work session, Laura Briefer, the city's public utilities director, presented the council with a potentially grim water supply and drought outlook this summer.

Salt Lake City reached the second stage of its five-stage drought response last year for the first time since 2004 because of the ongoing drought. It led to mandatory government water use cutbacks within the city and a request to residents to voluntarily reduce their water consumption.

It's still in that phase as all of Salt Lake County remains in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Briefer said it could take multiple seasons before the city's water supply returns to normal as a result of how bad conditions have been.

The water supply projections are better now than in March last year because the snowpack runoff is expected to be more efficient for the creeks and reservoirs that fill the city's water needs, she explained. But there are still "significant concerns" regarding what the runoff will look like.

Salt Lake City mostly pulls in water from the Provo-Utah Lake-Jordan snowpack basin, which currently holds about 11.5 inches of water — about 75% of normal for this point in the snow collection season, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It needs another 6.7 inches of water in the next five weeks to reach the normal peak from the past 30 years.

The good news is that Deer Creek Reservoir, which the city relies on most during drought years and meeting summer demands, was 77% full last month. That means it's in good position to reach full capacity once the runoff begins.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center also offers a favorable March forecast; however, it projects an overall drier-than-average spring for Salt Lake City and surrounding areas. Briefer told the council the long-range forecasts for late spring "point to this persistent drought that we're seeing."

"I'm not recommending we leave stage 2 (of the drought response plan) at this point," Briefer said. "I think we need to see what the rest of the winter and spring bring us in terms of snowpack and precipitation — to see if those three-month outlooks for temperature and precipitation hold true."

Her report weighed heavy on the council members' minds as they voted on spending $25,000 for public fireworks displays.

Councilwoman Victoria Petro-Eschler said the drought report indicates the city may not be "in a safe place" to launch fireworks by July. Councilman Alejandro Puy agreed, pointing to possible fire safety concerns this summer.

There's also air quality concern from wildfires elsewhere. Salt Lake City's situation isn't different from most communities in the West on that front.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall jumped into the discussion to remind the council that most of the air quality concerns that arose last summer came from wildfires west of Utah that blew smoke into the Beehive State. That could be a problem again this summer — even if Utah's fire season is as tame as last year's ended up being.

While the contracts would allow a full refund if Salt Lake City canceled its fireworks show up to 10 days in advance because of poor air quality or drought, some of the council members were skeptical of putting money toward a project that they may end up canceling at the last second. Some were even wary of spending money on fireworks, altogether.

"I recognize we've been in a pandemic for two years and we want to get out and celebrate — I just think that $25,000 on fireworks feels rather frivolous," said Councilwoman Amy Fowler, noting that the budget item is the same amount the city had just awarded a business center that helps minority residents.

The timing and possible unintended consequences of not having a public fireworks display were other issues considered by the council, which is why the vote was split.

Utah residents are allowed to light off personal fireworks within approved spaces during a three-day window each holiday; however, the drought conditions last year were so severe that Gov. Spencer Cox pleaded with residents to not use any fireworks they had purchased, and Salt Lake City didn't allow any areas permission to launch fireworks.

Councilman Chris Wharton, who voted in favor of spending the money on fireworks, referenced a discussion with city fire officials who warned that the use of personal fireworks increases during each holiday when there's no public display.

At the same time, city officials aren't sure how to celebrate the Fourth of July and Pioneer Day with only a few months left before the large-scale events.

"Given the timeline issues … we're kind of in a bind," Wharton said. "We don't have other options for this year. I think we should go ahead with funding the fireworks."

Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros went on to suggest the city put the funding in a lockbox, to be used toward future holiday celebrations, while Petro-Eschler recommended putting the spending toward any other form of holiday celebration.

After the council voted against fireworks spending, it unanimously agreed to table the discussion on holiday event spending for a later time.