As water wanes, two Utah towns stop building

The towns of Oakley and Henefer have prohibited building approvals requiring new hookups to city water.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New construction in Oakley goes up next to a parched hillside where juniper trees begin to turn black due to the extreme drought conditions on Monday, June 21, 2021. The city of Oakley in Summit County has halted all building approvals and landscaping installations requiring new connections to city water due to extreme drought conditions in the area.

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Henefer is the kind of town where when children grow up they build a home near their parents. But for almost the past two years, families have had to wait. In fact, a dozen houses have delayed construction after the city implemented a moratorium on building that requires new hookups to city water.

The moratorium is due to the extreme drought which is crippling agriculture, super-sizing wildfires and now threatening the growth of at least two Utah small towns that are running low on water.

“I appreciate the town’s efforts to conserve,” said Henefer Mayor Kay Richins. “There’s parents that want to see their sons or daughters build; it’s creating some hardships there a little bit, because in some situations their children — with their families —- are living with the parents, until they can get a home built. Well, with this moratorium it’s put everything on hold, and so you’ve got two families living in a house.”

While many Utah communities are altering lawn irrigation days and pushing water-saving tips, Oakley and Henefer have prioritized current residents over new building, and halted new projects on city water all together.

‘A perfect storm’

Oakley is already dry. The town, located at the base of the Uinta Mountains and above the nearly 40%-empty Rockport Reservoir, has been experiencing water shortages for years.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Weber River flows into the severely diminished Rockport Reservoir as areas normally covered by water lie bare on Monday, June 21, 2021.

Dallas Hansen, Oakley’s water operator, said the city needs more water. New buildings mean new connections to city water, and that’s a further strain on the supply.

“We’re in the process now of a new well and a number of things to mitigate those issues,” Hansen said. “But in the meantime, the city just didn’t feel it was fair to continually ask its current residents to be on worse and worse restrictions because they allow more homes in that we just can’t quite handle yet.”

Nearby Henefer gets all their water from a spring. The town is hoping to begin construction on a secondary system this fall, although increasing costs of materials have delayed the project. The city’s moratorium on building has lasted close to two years, and Henefer Mayor Kay Richins said he knows of at least a dozen houses waiting for it to be lifted.

Both Henefer and Oakley have culinary water systems, meaning all the water the towns use is suitable for drinking, even when it goes on grass and in fields.

“We’re watering our lawns with our drinking water,” Richins said, “and during the summer months it puts a strain on our system.”

The people of Henefer have tried to conserve water where they can, according to Richins, and lawns don’t look as green as they used to. The lifting of Henefer’s moratorium depends on how quickly their secondary water system is built. And it depends on rain.

In a long drought like this, Richins worries that even spring water isn’t a given. “You have droughts like we’re having this year, it causes great concern that our springs will hold up,” Richins said. “We have no wells, all of our water is spring water.”

Oakley is hoping the restriction on new water hookups is temporary, with the moratorium scheduled for six months. Only a few building permits have already been rejected, Hansen said.

“With the severity of the drought, on top of an infrastructure that we’re trying to improve, it is just a perfect storm,” Hansen said. “We have to think of our residents and the people that are actually living here first. So that’s why we’ve made those decisions, because of course we love and we welcome people to build here… but unfortunately not at the cost of the people that have lived here all their lives.”

Oakley has also implemented restrictions on water features and outdoor pools to mitigate the water shortage, following Gov. Spencer Cox’s call for Utahns to conserve water resources, but they are in the process of building a new well for the community. Oakley’s new well, which Hansen is hoping will be active by next spring, will be built near the Cottonwood Springs.

“At this point, all we can do is try to conserve,” Hansen said. “I don’t think people realize, even though we talk about it, just how bad it is. It’s drier than we’ve ever seen. Everything from crops to, to day-to-day usage; it’s affecting people statewide... We just really want to plead with people, if everyone does their part and tries to conserve, just know that your lawn will come back. It’s a sacrifice we need to all make.”

Oakley mayor Wade Woolstenhulme said the city has had to ration water every year for the eight years he’s been mayor, and that all the members of the Oakley City Council are doing their part to conserve water at the expense of a “nice green yard.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Wade Woolstenhulme overlooks his property from his 100-year-old barn that holds the last of his hay bales from last year on Monday, June 21, 2021. Woolstenhulme just finished harvesting his first batch of hay for the season and doubts he’ll get another one due to the extreme drought conditions. The city of Oakley in Summit County has halted all building approvals and landscaping installations requiring new connections to city water due to extreme drought conditions in the area.

The moratorium required Hansen to inspect water features in the area to make sure individuals with those water features had a separate well, and weren’t drawing water from the city’s system. It didn’t make sense to some residents for the city to issue building permits while it was also monitoring residents’ water use, so Hansen brought the issue to the City Council.

“It was a tough decision, because we know that there’s people that have just bought land or lots and they want to start building,” Woolstenhulme said. “But at the same time, if the people that live here can’t have what they need to live comfortably then, then it [doesn’t] make no sense.”

Oakley started the season with residents being able to water their lawns every other day, but recently the city cut back watering to only two days per week.

“The biggest impact is people have a lot of pride in their yards and their landscaping,” Woolstenhulme said. “People have just had to watch things burn up a little bit… The regular citizens, I don’t think they’ve suffered any, because we still got water coming through our taps, and we’re maintaining our supply system. We’ve had a couple of people that have been a little frustrated because they had great plans to put a yard in this year, or build a house and we’ve had to deny a couple of requests to do that. That’s hard to do that because I feel for them.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The berms surrounding the baseball fields at the Oakley Rodeo Grounds & City Park are left unwatered as seen on Monday, June 21, 2021, in an effort to conserve dwindling water supplies. The city of Oakley in Summit County has halted all building approvals and landscaping installations requiring new connections to city water due to extreme drought conditions in the area.

Oakley has also been increasing their water rates. Before last month, they were some of the cheapest in the state. The new well the city is working on will be about 2,000 feet deep, when most wells are only 400-600 feet deep— retrieving “prehistoric, glaciated dinosaur water,” Oakley Mayor Wade Woolstenhulme said.

“There’s no way to outthink Mother Nature, so we’re just going to play it by ear,” Woolstenhulme said. “We’ll reevaluate things in November.”

Kendell Staples, Oakley’s public works director, said they’ve been monitoring water in the city daily — checking sprinklers and looking for dry spots and wet spots — while also cutting their water usage on city land.

“We cut it last year but we cut it even more this year — [we’re] just trying to manage,” Staples said. “We’ve got a lot of big tournament’s coming into town, we’ve got the Triple Crown softball, Triple Crown baseball, we’ve got the Park City Extreme Cup for soccer coming in. All of them tout the best of the best fields, and we’re trying to maintain that level with the water.”

Dry and hot, the wildfire threat grows

The drought hasn’t just stalled development for the towns — wildfires are a big concern for the area with the dry conditions they’ve seen recently.

“Some of the areas that we weren’t watering, or trying not to water to save water for the rodeo, we’re concerned that somebody is going to drop a cigarette and light up our complex,” Staples said. “We’re trying to get a little bit more water on those so they’re not such a fire hazard. We’re also going in and cutting anything that’s above six to eight inches down, so there’s nothing to burn.”

Summit County Council chair Glenn Wright said since Summit County is one of the “highest, greenest counties in the state,” they haven’t seen much wildfire activity yet.

“But in fairly short order, I expect we’re going to see some forest fires in the county,” Wright said. “The bad part is the drought started so early this year… normally we’re still pretty green because of the snowpack — that’s not necessarily true this year, things are drying up much more rapidly… We’re facing some potentially-bad circumstances this summer.”

Last year was a “pretty bad forest fire season for the entire west,” but it wasn’t as bad in Utah as it was in other states, Wright said. However, toward the end of the 2020 fire season, resources were “so stressed out from fighting fires all over the western US that there were not resources available to help us.”

“There was a fire in the late season in Duchesne County last year that was in fairly remote areas, except for one section around Moon Lake,” Wright said. “There weren’t resources to help put it out and it grew to 70,000 acres. We could be facing that in multiple areas this year, unfortunately.

“As we start thinking about regulations on how we water grass and how we use water, I think we have to consider the effects that climate change is having on the environment... What we consider now as a 100-year drought, may be something that we have to face in the future every three or four years.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Weber River sees little flow in the town of Oakley on Monday, June 21, 2021, as the majority of the water is diverted to the Provo River. The city of Oakley in Summit County has halted all building approvals and landscaping installations requiring new connections to city water due to extreme drought conditions in the area.

Overall, Summit county is going to need more water in the future. Wright said the county had discussions with Weber Basin a few months ago and they projected that they have enough water for the next 10 years. Beyond that, the area will need to fund a water importation project from Rockport Reservoir — which requires planning about five years ahead of time.

“I think we’re going to have a lot of population growth in the eastern part of the county over the next decade or so,” Wright said. “And, and that’s certainly going to be something we’re going to be talking about… How much is it going to cost to interconnect some of the water systems in the eastern part of the county and perhaps build some more robust connections with the Weber Basin Water.... We’ve got major reservoirs in the eastern part of the county that for the most part the towns over there aren’t equipped to tie into, and that may be a major infrastructure issue that we’ll have to deal with in the future.”

Summit County is discussing encouraging measures like xeriscaping, a method of landscaping that requires less irrigation, and increased restrictions on lawn watering as the drought situation continues.

“This drought that we’re facing this year may be the new normal,” Wright said. “So we’re gonna have to start adjusting to it, and adjusting to it more forcefully than we have in the past… We are trying to make some plans, and I think the plans...if we implement them, may be an example for some other communities in the state.”

June 29, 2021 • An earlier version of this story misstated the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District’s name.