UTAH (ABC4) – With reservoir supplies dwindling, unprecedented heat waves, and a drier than average winter, it’s no secret that Utah is feeling the effects of our current drought. A recent study that was heavily documented by local and national news outlets alike suggests that this dry spell is, in fact, the worst in at least 1,200 years. And in Utah — where our high desert climate isn’t conducive to bountiful water resources in the first place — our increasing population is poised to put even more of a strain on this finite resource.
But, what is the reality of our water situation?
In interest of not mincing words, experts say it’s getting quite dire.
“I spend a lot of my time worrying, frankly, and being concerned about our current situation,” says Kelly Kopp, a water conservation specialist and professor at Utah State University. “We should have been thinking about this more carefully decades ago.”
And indeed, as of press time, the majority of Utah is classified as being in the “severe drought” category, with about 33% of the state in “extreme drought.” According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Utah’s current dry spell — which began in spring 2020 — has been the most intense in the state’s history.
While a particularly wet December gave Utahns a beacon of hope after plentiful snowfall resulted in a downgrading of the entirety of the state from the ‘exceptional drought’ category, the rollercoaster ride continued with a relatively dry January and February. This made relying on snowpack as a drought-ending silver bullet seem more and more like a pipe dream.
Come April, state water officials will evaluate snowpack and analyze how it will affect the filling of Utah’s reservoirs. Currently — when examining Utah’s reservoirs as a combined unit — they are only filled to an average of 37% of their capacity.
And with a still-growing population, the question looms: where will we get enough water for all the homes and people who need it?
“We have a lot of people coming in and we have a lot of internal growth as well,” Kopp says. “That, coupled with our climate situation is really, for myself, it’s all-consuming at the moment, I will tell you that for sure.”
Paul Brooks, director of the Hydrology and Water Resources Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Utah, adds that current infrastructure was built to manage a water supply that “would be adequate for 1950 or 1960,” but with current climate and population demands, the situation is a lot different.
Is it possible we’ll actually run out of water in Utah?
We’re likely asking this question in our heads, but it’s one that is so scary and apocalyptic we might be avoiding saying it aloud. According to experts, though, the complex answer doesn’t make the question any less worthwhile.
“We’re already running out of water,” says Paul Brooks, director of the Hydrology and Water Resources Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Utah. “All you have to do is go back to last summer and see that a couple of small communities just east of Salt Lake City either ran out of water or had to curtail building permits because they couldn’t guarantee enough water to supply new homes.”
So, in short, the answer is yes. According to Brooks, communities like Oakley have had to put a cap on growth due to lack of water and, according to Kopp, some more remote communities in Utah have historically had to truck in drinking water during particularly dry periods. In July 2021, ABC4 covered Echo, a small town in Summit County, and their desperate search for water when their source dried up.
But, like so many things, there are nuances to Utah’s water situation, too. According to Brooks, it’s unlikely that residents of more urban areas like Salt Lake City or Provo will every have to face turning the faucet handle to reveal a tap run dry, but that doesn’t make our situation any less serious.
“Salt Lake City is probably not going to run out of water in the way that it is not available to the taps, but we are running out of water and having related impacts on air quality with the Great Salt Lake shrinking,” he says. “So, the idea of running out of water is a tough question. When you say that, people think: ‘Well, am I not going to be able to turn on the tap?’ In some places that’s already happening, and as we move forward, that’s probably going to become more frequent, more common.”
Will the drought render Utah uninhabitable?
According to reporting by Smithsonian Magazine Science Correspondent Brian Handwerk, previous comparable megadroughts are thought to have caused the uprooting of communities in the West. For example — though it remains unclear what caused the departure from settlements in Chaco Canyon in the 12th century and Mesa Verde in the 13th — researchers suspect the Anasazi’s abandonment of the land could have to do with a drought-related decline in water resources.
So, is history doomed to repeat itself in this instance?
In some sense, yes. Brooks says, while it’s unlikely that Utahns will be forced to abandon larger cities, remote living in Utah might become less viable.
“When we see small towns, largely agricultural towns, who use groundwater both for crops and for their municipal supply, we’re already seeing some of those towns either curtail planned growth or already be in a situation where they can’t supply reliable water for the people that live there,” he says.
He adds that, when looking at the last megadrought — which occurred in the 1500’s — from a present-day perspective, it looks like everyone left their dwellings en masse. But, in actuality, they probably left over a period of years, as they gradually realized their communities no longer had viable resources. Brooks says this natural migration is starting to happen now, especially in some of Utah’s smaller towns.
What is being done about the drought?
Even given the severity of the situation, there may be reason for a balanced, hesitant sort of optimism. Currently, there are steps being taken on part of government authorities to combat Utah’s drought, Kopp and Brooks say.
The Utah Department of Water Resources recently released their finalized Water Resources Plan, which projects water needs as far out as the year 2070, and evaluates and makes recommendations for current-day action steps.
According to Todd Stonely, assistant director of planning at the Department of Water Resources, the plan has three main areas of focus: collection of reliable data to inform decisions, developing a comprehensive approach to securing the reliable water supply, and preserving the health of watersheds and the environment.
The plan has also identified several geographical areas — Washington County and the Great Virgin River Basin, specifically — that will need water relatively soon. Stonely also mentions that the growing population along the Wasatch Front will eventually necessitate additional supply, too.
The Water Resources Plan also outlines many strategies for water conservation and protection of resources going forward. Some of the actions step outlined in the plan include establishing watershed councils for specific areas in order to invite collaboration and ensure concerns are heard, treating wastewater and using it where appropriate, and working with the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council to research and combat the shrinking of this body of water.
In addition, several bills in the current legislative session are focused at combating the drought, too. One bill, HB242, would require all secondary water connections — which send untreated water directly from rivers and reservoirs to urban and suburban landscapes — to have a meter by 2030. Though the bill has been the subject of much controversy due to the lofty, expensive goals it strives for and a possible increase in water rates, Kopp thinks that, in large, it’s a good idea.
“We cannot manage what we can’t measure,” Kopp says. “To my mind, this metering project and this push for metering secondary water is just one more step to help us get a handle on exactly how much water we have and how it’s being used.”
The finalized Water Resources Plan lists “providing funding to expand the secondary metering system statewide” as one of their recommendations.
A second bill Kopp believes will help is HB282, which focuses on defining what water-wise landscapes are and sets requirements for those environments.
“Irrigation of landscapes is a good thing to focus on,” she says. “It’s a terrific approach in our urban and suburban communities because so much water is used for that purpose.”
What can Utahns do on an individual level?
Kopp says making progress against the drought isn’t all up to legislative action and government intervention, either. There are things that every Utahn can do to help combat the drought. One important aspect, she says, is focusing on outdoor irrigation and prioritizing which features of your property get first dibs on water.
“Unfortunately — and I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years at this point — most people don’t realize that they’re overusing water outside,” she says. “Trees should take first [water] priority, for example, whereas grasses can actually be left un-irrigated for the most part, especially in Northern Utah.”
She recommends referring to the Department of Water Resources website for watering recommendations in your area based on weather-based data.
In addition, Stonely says that following the advice of Smokey the Bear and doing our part to prevent wildfires can also help the drought, too.
“Everyone has a responsibility to be a good water steward, in terms of how we use our water, so we’re not wasting it and also working to protect it from pollution and other influences that can diminish its value,” he says. “One way we can do that is avoiding manmade forest fires that can devastate watersheds and pollute our water reservoirs and our water supplies.”