After one of the hottest and driest summers on record, Utah’s water supplies are so low that agricultural water deliveries have been cut short, stream gauges need to be repositioned to measure paltry flows, young deer and elk are dying and ranchers are liquidating their herds.
And, most notably, 221,000 acres have burned and 370 structures destroyed in Utah’s busiest wildfire season since 2012 — and a full month remains in the season.
These grim snippets emerged Monday at an emergency meeting hosted by the Utah Department of Natural Resources. This summer, surface water supplies dropped so low that state law mandated a meeting of the Drought Review and Reporting Committee, made up of Utah’s top environmental and natural resources officials, along with federal counterparts.
The conditions are dire, and no relief is on the horizon, according to State Climatologist Robert Gillies and Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. Last year was also dry, but a spurt of intense precipitation in early 2017 kept the state out of danger.
“Now we’ve depleted our stores in the reservoirs. What we had before, money in the bank, we don’t have now,” McInerney said. "If we get an average year, we can fill reservoirs back to a certain level. The large ones won’t fill. Lake Powell and Lake Mead will never fill again, most likely.”
Plaguing the West is a stubborn “dipole” weather pattern.
“This scenario is going to get worse as we continue to warm our climate and weather gets more stagnant with high pressure in the West and low pressure in the East,” McInerney said. “It’s going to be dependent on what we do from here on out if we can slow down C02 [emissions blamed for climate change]. It does not look like we are going to do anything short term, so we are going to have to adapt to these stagnant weather patterns, and that’s unfortunate.”
The drought has hit southeastern Utah the hardest. Agriculture and Food Commissioner LuAnn Adams said six counties have declared drought emergencies: San Juan, Carbon, Emery, Grand, Box Elder and Wayne. Ranchers who lack forage to support their herds are forced to sell cattle for as low as 60 percent of their full value, and farmers who usually harvest three cuttings of alfalfa are lucky to get one.
“The loss will result in about $3 million from rural communities,” Adams said.
Utah averages 1,100 wildfires a year. So far, Utah has seen 1,242.
“The number of fires is not that far off the mark, but all the numbers are far beyond average, that’s the drought impact," said State Forester Brian Cottam. At least 86 homes have been lost to fires that various agencies spent $80 million to fight. Utah’s share will exceed $30 million.
At least a dozen blazes have cost the state $1 million or more in suppression costs, four times the usual number. Cottam blamed the extreme conditions that make it far more difficult to contain fires while they are still small.
Wildlife habitat is so degraded that the Utah Wildlife Board is increasing big-game tags this year to reduce the number of hungry deer and elk expected to raid crops, according to Mike Fowlks, director of the Division of Wildlife Resources.
Of the 154 stream gauges the U.S. Geological Survey operates in Utah, a dozen have registered all-time low flows.
“This year, we’ve had many instances where we had to adjust the equipment in the streams because the flows are so low that our equipment is above the water level,” said hydrologist Cory Angeroth of the agency’s Utah Water Science Center.
DNR will compile the information presented Monday into a report for Gov. Gary Herbert for a possible drought emergency declaration, which would free resources to provide relief to those affected. It is unlikely, however, that the report will result in an immediate declaration.
“It gives us a head start. We know we have severe conditions now,” department spokesman Nathan Schwebach said. “We are in a wait-and-see in front of winter. It puts us in a position to make dictions quicker as spring approaches.”