‘Water is precious’: Low water levels at Utah lakes, reservoirs expected through summer

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(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(ABC4) – As has been well documented this week, Utah is anticipating an extremely dry summer this year.

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The conditions are already having a major effect on many lakes and reservoirs around the state and could have a major impact on water recreation and fun. Lake Powell, for example, was measured as holding just 36% of its total storage capacity on May 1, according to the Division of Natural Resources. The water level was low last year as well at 49%, but a 13% drop is especially alarming to officials.

Heather Patno of the Bureau of Reclamation told ABC4 in April that the decrease has been an issue for some time.  

“In looking at the last 20 years of drought, beginning in 2012 and anticipating what is going to be seen in 2021, this will be the driest 10 years on record,” Patno told ABC4’s Jordan Verdadeiro.

This year’s particularly concerning conditions can be attributed to both a very hot and dry summer last year and a disappointingly small amount of snow over the winter, according to Division of Natural Resources spokesperson Kim Wells.

“We were hoping for a good snowpack this winter and that never happened,” Wells explains to ABC4. “And snowpack is Utah’s largest water supply.”

The snow that was expected to fall never materialized. The amount that did, came too early and at 81% of the average peak snowpack. That shallow early peak made the runoff in the spring ineffective at filling the streams and reservoirs around the state, which are currently paying the price with extremely low levels.

The shallow water can throw a wrench into many Utahns plans for water recreation. The launch ramp at Glen Canyon National Park that sends boats and other vessels out for fun at Lake Powell announced that it would be closed until further notice by the National Parks Service on May 17.

To avoid disappointment, Wells is recommending that boaters plan ahead by checking out water levels and ramp opening and closings online at stateparks.utah.gov before they head out on the water.

However, one group that won’t be upset by low water levels are anglers. The Department of Wildlife Resources announced on Wednesday that the fishing limits at 10 bodies of water would be increased due to drought conditions. As water levels decrease, the temperatures can rise quickly while also reducing oxygen under the surface, proving fatal to fish. Since the fish would already be in danger if they remained in their aquatic abodes, the DWR is allowing fishing fanatics to take in more than usual at the specified areas until the end of October.

While there is no need to conserve fish during a drought, Utahns are being asked to converse in other ways. Traditionally, most folks think about beginning to water their lawns when the snow melts around the end of March or beginning of April. However, this year, Wells and her department launched an initiative around the state, asking residents to “wait to water” until May.

The effect was significant. According to Wells, Lehi residents conserved over 130 million gallons of water by holding off on irrigation. American Fork saved even more, with 160 million gallons conserved.

Other simple adjustments to daily life can make a big difference in water conservation.

“When you wash your hands, which has been so important during this pandemic, and you’re soaking up, don’t let the water run the whole time you’re soaking up your hand. Turn it off and soap up and then turn it back on to rinse it,” Wells suggests.

Of course, as the summer heats up and more out-of-state tourists flock to the Beehive State for recreation, it is expected that water usage won’t be a priority for the visitors.

Wells and her team are already making plans to get the messaging out to tourists about how serious the situation in the state is, placing reminders in hotel rooms and bathrooms. Stickers asking visitors to be mindful of how long they use the shower or to recommend using the same towel over a couple of days are being prepared to go to popular destinations.

How Utah fares this summer, which is expected to be the driest and also most prone to wildfires in quite some time, will depend heavily on personal responsibility, according to Wells.

“We ask people use the water wisely because water is precious.”

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