A new poll shows that while more than 8 in 10 Utah residents remain concerned over the drought impacting the state, the series of storms this winter leaving a bountiful mountain snowpack have more than half of them less concerned than last year.
What a difference a year can make in perception.
When it came to views people have regarding Utah’s drought in general, 85% of survey participants said they were concerned, 14% said they were not concerned, while another 1% said they did not know.
That level of concern is a good thing as water managers across the state repeatedly push the message to conserve, and those water savings in many cases have been realized by cities, counties, universities and private institutions.
Last summer saw record heat, shrinking reservoir levels, severe reductions in water allotted to irrigators and some small cities running out of drinking water. All of Utah was blanketed in some form of drought, and it was severe.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency, at one point asked residents to pray for relief and the state Legislature ponied up more than a half-billion dollars last session tackling water conservation and efforts to help the shrinking Great Salt Lake.
But with winter storms pounding the state, delivering snow levels well above average and in some areas like southern Utah nearly twice what is average, the poll shows some residents’ concern over drought is starting to wane.
More than half of those polled, over 52%, said they are less concerned about drought than last year, 14% remain more concerned, 34% have about the same attitude and 1% don’t know.
The Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics went out in the field Jan. 23-30 tapping the opinions of 802 Utah registered voters. The survey, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
Jordan Clayton, Utah Snow Survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, blamed the confusion of the poll results on the complexity involved in the different kinds of drought: meteorological, agricultural and hydrological.
“When people are seeing the above normal precipitation and snowpack, they’re talking about meteorological drought, which it’s something that we welcome and we are seeing improvements, of course, in that area,” Clayton said. “The one that’s going to take a much longer time to get out of is the hydrological drought, which is essentially our storage systems, our reservoirs — all of our surface water storage.”
Drought and its manifestations come in cycles, he said.
The first variation people notice is the lack of snow or rain, which leads to the drying of the soils causing the agricultural drought. The duration of drought begins to erode storage systems, jeopardizing water supplies.
According to state officials, about 95% of Utah’s water comes from snowpack, noting it will take multiple years of above average snowpack and precipitation to reverse the impacts of drought.
Correcting the course relies on those multiple years of good snowpack, Clayton added.
Even with the snowpack delivered so far, he said many reservoirs will not end up full, including larger ones like Jordanelle and Deer Creek and also Yuba, which was severely depleted.
“In some areas of the state, the reservoirs will fill. I don’t want to suggest otherwise,” Clayton said. “But we’ve got some really big reservoirs that are not going to fill and of course, we’re very concerned about the Great Salt Lake and Lake Powell.”