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The City Journals

Residents encouraged to conserve water as drought persists

May 03, 2021 12:30PM ● By Josh Wood

Below-average snowpack and dry soil will impact reservoir levels. (Joshua Wood/City Journals)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

Editor’s note: this is the second in a four-part series looking at the state’s drought conditions.

The entire state of Utah is experiencing drought, and 90% of the state is seeing extreme drought. While the state’s snowpack received a boost from wetter conditions in February and March than it saw in early winter, water totals for the year are below normal. That means there will be less runoff than normal, lower reservoir levels, and the need for residents to conserve water.

“Utah’s statewide snow water equivalent (SWE) peaked at 12.6 inches on March 27, which was 81% of normal and about 10 days early,” stated Jordan Clayton, data collection officer with the Utah Snow Survey and US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Unfortunately, our SWE didn’t last at 12.6 inches for more than a day, and recent warm temperatures have caused the statewide SWE value to plummet.”

Utah entered the current water year needing a snowpack well above average to compensate for persistent dry conditions. Another below average year sparked Gov. Spencer J. Cox to issue an executive order on March 17 declaring a state of emergency due to drought conditions.

“We’ve been monitoring drought conditions carefully and had hoped to see significant improvement from winter storms,” Cox said. “Unfortunately, we have not received enough snow to offset the dry conditions. I ask Utahns to evaluate their water use and find ways to save not only because of current drought conditions but also because we live in one of the driest states in the nation.”

While the entire state has seen drought conditions persist, the severity has varied within the state. By early April, SWE for major watersheds in the northeastern Uinta Mountains and southeastern Utah stood at around 90% of normal, while southwestern Utah was at just 50% or normal. The majority of the state’s basins stood at around 70% of normal.

March may have seemed stormy to area residents, but precipitation for the month was just 73% of normal. This further exacerbated an already disappointing water year.

As the state’s lower than normal snowpack melts this spring, much of the runoff needed in streams and reservoirs will not make it there. Prolonged drought conditions have left Utah’s soils thirsty. Soil moisture was at just 40% of saturation at the end of March. That was down 6% from the same time last year and was near the minimum levels seen since sensors were installed to take the measurements over a decade ago.

“Soil moisture levels in the state have started to wet up due to the melting snow but are still extremely dry compared with previous years,” Clayton said. “Forecasters have had to reduce the anticipated gains from melting snow to account for the likelihood that a significant portion of this year’s snowmelt runoff will soak into headwater soils and not make it to downstream reservoirs.”

Utah’s reservoir storage in early April was down 14% from the previous year. Below-normal snowpack and dry soil will likely keep those levels lower this year.

In his drought executive order, Cox made recommendations for residents to conserve water. These included reducing indoor water waste, fixing irrigation inefficiencies, converting unnecessary turf areas to waterwise landscapes, and considering purchasing water-saving devices like smart-timer controllers or low-flow toilets. Even taking shorter showers can help make a difference.

Other suggestions issued by the governor’s office included fixing water leaks, only running full loads of laundry or dishes, and turning off the tap while brushing teeth, shaving, soaping up, doing dishes or rinsing vegetables. Further recommendations and water-saving tips can be found at SlowTheFlow.org.

Residents can anticipate a summer of saving water, lower reservoir levels, and potential economic damage resulting from drought conditions.

“This winter ranks 34th of the 41 years for which we have collected statewide SWE values at our SNOTEL sites,” Clayton said.