The hits just keep on coming.

Heat and dwindling water supplies have combined to result in an outbreak of a harmful algal bloom in the Virgin River watershed, according to the latest drought update issued by the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Southern Utah saw little to no precipitation in May and both Cedar City and St. George tied records for the driest May in 127 years.

An excessive heat warning is in effect for southern Utah Friday and Saturday.

The U.S. Drought Monitor this week shows that nearly 6% of Utah has reached exceptional drought, the absolute worst category.

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“Now that portions of the state have moved into ‘exceptional drought,’ water conservation becomes even more critical,” said Brian Steed, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. “Residents looking to stretch our water supply can find rebates and conservation tips at SlowtheFlow.org” 

Other states in the West are faring no better in this generational drought, with Nevada with more than 21% of its land mass in the exceptional category and California approaching 12%.

In Utah, officials expect the Great Salt Lake to shrink even more, setting a new historic low later this year. Already about 800 square miles of the lake bed is exposed as its briny water continues to recede, posing harmful threats to human health as wind-whipped dust impacts the northern Wasatch Front.

Kian Spendlove and Zeke Barrientos take their paddleboard out of the lake at the Great Salt Lake State Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 10, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and lawmakers scrambled this last legislative session, instituting new laws to boost water conservation savings and to try to help the ailing Great Salt Lake before it becomes even more devastated than it is.

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How bad is it?

At a glance, here’s a snapshot of some of the conditions unfolding in Utah.

  • Crop yields and feed availability for livestock are expected to be scarce. Farmers and ranchers are already making contingency plans and working to make sure animals are fed and watered and they can continue to deliver food to the grocery stores.
  • Current drought conditions have created drier fuels which in turn increase the chance of wildfire starts. To date, there have been 183 wildfires in Utah. Out of the 183 wildfires, this year 152 of them have been human-caused.  
  • Thirteen of Utah’s largest 45 reservoirs are below 55% of available capacity. Overall statewide storage is 63% of capacity. This is about where reservoirs were this time last year, and of the 99 measured streams, 61 are flowing below normal despite spring runoff. Four streams are flowing at record low conditions. Reservoirs won’t fill as they normally would.

Like last summer, low reservoir levels are prompting boat ramp closures at state parks, narrowing the window of opportunity to recreate on the bodies of water.

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Both ramps at Willard Bay are already closed, according to the state parks division, as well as Painted Rocks at Yuba, the south ramp at Quail Creek State Park in Washington County, and the Rock Cliff Ramp at Jordanelle. A full list can be found at the state parks’ website.

Agricultural impacts

Across Utah, water and canal companies have already made significant cuts in water allotments for farmers and ranchers due to drought. Weber Basin Water Conservancy District reduced water deliveries to agricultural operations by 40%.

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Opportunities to “optimize” agricultural use of water are available through grants offered by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. The application window for funding opens July 1.

The waning river

The Westwide drought that has relentlessly dogged the region for more than 20 years is sapping the Colorado River, leading to the emergency release of water to prop up Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the nation’s two largest reservoirs.

New research by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and university scientists said you have to go back to the second century to find a drought worse than this one, when average flows were 68% of normal — according to paleontology records. Average flows from 1905 through 2021 at the Colorado are 84% of average.

The authors reconstructed the streamflow at Lees Ferry on the Colorado River to develop the findings, which were published in Geophysical Research Letters.

In May, the bureau announced a $660 million funding boost for rural water projects and to address aging infrastructure in a nod to instilling more sustainability in the system.

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