‘Can’t get complacent’: Majority of Utah experiencing ‘exceptional drought’

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BIG WATER, UT – MARCH 29: A bleached “bathtub ring” is visible on Lone rock at Lake Powell on March 29, 2015 near Big Water, Utah. As severe drought grips parts of the Western United States, a below average flow of water is expected to flow through the Colorado River Basin into two of its biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Lake Powell is currently at 45 percent of capacity, a recent study predicts water elevation there to be above 3,575 by September. The Colorado River Basin supplies water to 40 million people in seven western states. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

UTAH (ABC4) – Having already made two emergency declarations due to state drought conditions, Utah Governor Spencer Cox invited Utahns to join him in praying for rain.

Drought is not uncommon in the Beehive State, but this year’s water statistics indicate divine intervention might be called for.

Utah Drought Conditions as of June 1

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the state is in 100% drought, 90% extreme drought, and 62% exceptional drought, as of June 1.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, historically, extreme drought has caused increased fire danger, fire bans on public lands, stressed vegetation, and low streamflow. Exceptional drought has caused increased fire restrictions and officials to cut irrigation water allotments.

The chart below demonstrates Utah’s current extreme drought conditions have not been matched since 2003 and 2004. And the state hasn’t experienced current levels of exceptional drought at least within the last 20 years.

Rachel Shilton, River Basin Planning Manager for the division, tells ABC4 more of Utah’s area is experiencing the highest level of drought than any other state currently.

She says Utah has had a series of drought historically, and the current one really began in 2000.

“Utah has been in a dry period for the last 20 years,” she states. Other past droughts in the state occurred in 1974 through 1978 and before that, from 1950 to 1965.

Shilton says there has been an attitude change around water use since then. The water supply “is so reliable that it runs under our consciousness,” she explains.

What can Utahns do to conserve water?

Marcie McCartney, Water Conservation Manager for the Utah Division of Water Resources, says there are things Utahns can do to conserve water, including watering one less time a week.

She says people can develop the mindset that it’s okay for the landscape to be a little brown. In fact, overwatering can have negative effects on the landscape. And watering just one less time per week can save as much as 3,000 gallons of water.

McCartney also recommends using the division’s weekly watering guide, which includes tips and tricks for watering effectively. Prioritizing your watering is another way to conserve water, she says. Trees, shrubs, and perennials require more water than turfgrass.

She also recommends getting a smart irrigation controller, which will monitor how much water is needed and shut off a sprinkler system when necessary.

“We need more people to think before they do,” McCartney adds. She says it’s important to think before lighting a campfire or engaging in target practice. Even before hopping in the shower, people can think about how they are going to save water, she explains.

Effects of Utah’s current drought

According to Shilton, the drought has caused a decrease in vegetation in unmanaged areas. She also says reservoirs throughout the state are down by 10% from last year, with some of the larger ones down by 30%.

And the water storage level is dropping even in reservoirs designed to store water to help Utahns weather through the dry years.

“Single year reservoirs will be empty by the end of the year,” she states. “We can’t get complacent.”

Shilton says it has already been dry long enough that Utah’s soils have dried out. When the soil is full of water, reservoirs end up being filled with any runoff from rainfall. Currently, they are not getting that same inflow, she explains.

Water conservation is not a new topic to most Utahns, Shilton says. “Everyone needs to take a fresh look at what they can do individually to take action.”

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