A Summer Without Sprinklers? The Utah Drought Emergency

Swimming pools. Water slides. Running through sprinklers on the lawn. What is summer without water? From the hose, faucet or creek, water is everywhere it seems, but things aren’t what they seem, and a collision of reality and perception is (and has been) on its way. 

The drought is here. The entire state of Utah is experiencing some level of drought conditions. Soil moisture is low, feed for cattle is limited and natural springs are drying out. Almost 100% of the state is in what water wonks deem “severe” drought; pasture and water is inadequate for cattle, dust is diminishing air quality and streams and ponds are dry. Worse, 98% of the state is in “extreme” drought. Under those conditions, fire danger increases and even native vegetation becomes stressed.

Controversy Over New Water Sources

Whether or not Utah needs to divert more water or better manage the water it has is the subject of debate. At its center are two major water proposals .

The Lake Powell Pipeline would transport water from the drought-stricken Colorado River through a 140-mile pipeline to Washington County. Six other Colorado River Basin states use that water and warned Utah that moving forward with the pipeline would draw litigation. In response, Gov. Cox signed a 2021 bill creating Utah’s Colorado River Authority, complete with $9 million for a legal defense fund. 

The Bear River Development would divert water from the Bear River to Box Elder, Cache, Weber, Davis and Salt Lake Counties. Conservationists worry the diversion would deplete watershed, wetlands and the Great Salt Lake, harming local wildlife. 

The conditions were dire enough for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to declare a state of emergency in March 2021. His predecessor Gov. Gary Herbert made a similar drought emergency declaration in 2018, but, given where we are today, that alone was not enough to solve our water problem.  

The March emergency declaration’s main action activates the Drought Response Committee. The committee meets about once every month to discuss what Utah should do about the drought and offers recommendations to the governor and lawmakers. The committee consists of representatives from assorted government divisions. “Drought can impact so many things in the natural environment, the wildlife and with wildfires,” says Laura Haskell, the drought coordinator for the Utah Division of Water Resources. “It’s an interconnected web.” And it demands an interconnected response. 

“We’re all using water together, so we all need to be as careful as we can to make it work, because we don’t know how long the drought conditions or the water we have will last,” says Haskell. 

Yes. We all need to do our part to conserve water, but there does not appear to be a coordinated, unified plan in place. Water conservation and drought response efforts, at the moment, are largely piecemeal and mostly voluntary. Those with the authority to enact enforceable water regulations are state and municipal legislative bodies, to tailor a local response based on an area’s water needs, who otherwise leave it to the discretion of the state’s patchwork of water providers. 

So far, the governor has followed through on at least one of the Drought Response Committee’s recommendations. In early May, Gov. Cox issued a declaration forbidding irrigation at state facilities between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and requiring sprinklers be shut off during rainstorms. A subsequent executive drought order restricted lawn watering on state property to two days a week.

“At this time, we don’t anticipate this year moving beyond outdoor watering restrictions,” says Haskell, “But more watering restrictions could also be applied to golf courses and parks.”

Much of the rhetoric on the topic has revolved around personal responsibility, asking Utahns to follow the water-use guidelines on slowtheflow.org and offering water-saving rebates at utahwatersavers.com. If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same advice the public received in 2018, when only 76% of Utah was in severe drought. 

To save water, skip the beef hamburger at that backyard BBQ. The UN estimates it takes about 450 gallons of water to produce a single quarter-pound burger, about the same amount of water 700 square feet of grass needs per week during the summer. 

In early June, Gov. Cox waded into more unconventional waters (or conventional, depending on who you ask) by pleading for the state’s residents to pray for rain. In a pre-produced video, he said, “We need more rain, and we need it now. We need some divine intervention.” He went on to say, “By praying collaboratively and collectively, asking God or whatever higher power you believe in, for more rain, we may be able to escape the deadliest aspects of the continuing drought.”

While it’s impossible to know whether a sufficient number of Utahns dropped to their knees and supplicated to the heavens to warrant a miracle, as of the first week of July, 98% of the state was still in “extreme drought.

Divine intervention aside, yes, Utah could save an estimated 20 billion gallons of water every summer if everyone followed lawn-watering guidelines. More so, if we all agree to rip out our grass. But, it’s a drop in the bucket. Home water use accounts for only about 15% of Utah’s total consumption. Even if every one of us follows every guideline, personal conservation efforts, at best, are incremental in effect. 

Most of Utah’s water is used by the agriculture industry. In recent years, the legislature has made some attempt to make agricultural water consumption more efficient. In 2019, they passed a bill creating a grant program to fund agriculture water optimization projects. In 2021, lawmakers added an additional $3 million in funding to the program. 

Utah is of the driest states in the country and the fastest growing state. We’re going to have to get creative with our response. “This requires a variety of solutions,” says Haskell. “As much as we want to say ‘if everyone conserves we’ll be fine,’ we will have to find new sources, work on efficiency and conserve.”  

Ready to make your garden drought-friendly? We have tips from the experts at Red Butte Garden. Find this story in our July/August 2021 print issue.

Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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