From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):
During his tenure as Utah governor, Gary Herbert repeatedly stressed that water is the only limiting factor to the state’s growth.
That day is here for the nation’s fastest-growing state, and water managers are scrambling.
Drought is gripping 17 states in 95% of the service area of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and half of that area is experiencing severe or extreme conditions.
Those states stretch from the West, into the Southwest and the Great Plains region of the United States. Aside from Utah, victims of this megadrought are Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
It has become so severe at Utah’s Lake Powell, emergency releases were instituted from three upstream reservoirs to prop up its levels and to help keep power generation functioning at Glen Canyon Dam, which produces enough electricity for 336,000 households. On top of that, Colorado River allocations were reduced for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico due to the first water shortage in history being declared for the river.
In a five-year period, the nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — saw their capacity drop by half. They are now the lowest they’ve been since they started filling decades ago.
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the 18% reduction for Arizona, the 7% cut for Nevada and the 5% curtailment for Mexico, the historic first underscored how dismal the situation is in the Colorado River Basin.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology planned for years ago that we hoped we would never see is here,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, the bureau’s deputy commissioner…
According to the latest information from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 60 million people across nine states in the West are having their lives touched by what’s been described as a 100-year drought…
The Upper Colorado River Basin, which covers Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, is experiencing its driest 22 years on record. Lake Powell dropped 145 feet from 2000 to 2005, directly attributed to a record low runoff in 2002 of just 24% of average. The Great Salt Lake slipped below its lowest recorded elevation, documented in 1963.
Utah water managers are dipping into emergency supplies in the state’s reservoirs and most, if not all, irrigation companies are cutting the season short by weeks.
Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District that operates multiple northern Utah reservoirs, said conditions are dire…
Flint fears as the spigots for secondary water are turned off — and if September ends up hot and dry — households and businesses will turn to using treated water for landscaping needs…
How did we get here?
“It’s been pretty dramatic in how bad meteorologically it has been from an impacts point of view,” said Jon Meyer, a climate scientist with Utah State University’s Utah Climate Center.
Meyer said last year the drought was severe — with the driest summer and fall on record — but reservoirs were able to “buffer” that dryness in urban areas particularly.
When last winter’s below average snowpack began to melt, record dry soils stole the moisture…
Echoing Herbert’s concerns on water and growth, water law expert Melissa Reynolds warned if conditions persist, cities and the state throughout the arid West will face tough choices.
“We could see restrictions on new connections,” said Reynolds, an attorney with Holland & Hart. “I do think if we continue to see conditions like we have in 2021, more and more water providers may consider stopping new water connections. Lack of source capacity is a limiting factor on development.”
With even some “first in time” or the oldest, most senior water rights going dry or getting curtailed this year, Reynolds said impacts are widespread for the economy…
Agriculture and water
When it comes to Utah consumption, some critics point to the agricultural community as a big water waster in a state that is the second-driest in the nation.
They complain about the water it takes to grow alfalfa, admittedly a cash crop but one that is critical to support Utah’s ranching community.
Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, editorialized in the Deseret News that what most people don’t realize is that due to the Utah drought, farmers and ranchers have had their water cut from 70% to 75% this year compared to last.
He warned those reductions have forced ranchers to sell off cattle and resulted in crop yields far below normal, which will mean higher food prices…
Utahns’ love affair with green lawns has been a target of water providers as they push people to replace water-sucking turf with vegetation more suitable to the state’s climate…
How much vegetation must remain — an issue of aesthetics for some communities — varies from area to area, however. That has led some conservation-minded residents to question why there is a requirement at all…
Meyer, from USU, said as periods of extended and intense drought continue to persist, Utah may have to come to grips with abandoning its concerns over aesthetics and being more mindful of water use.
Drought may very well change how Utah looks, and how it grows.
Driving throughout New Mexico and Arizona, Meyer noted, there is an absence of lush green turf. In its place, there is vegetation that is more practical in an era of climate change.