Don’t let last week’s ample rains fool you. Utah remains dangerously parched with water stores severely depleted, natural habitats stressed and woodlands primed for burning, according to an emergency declaration issued Monday by Gov. Gary Herbert.
“The rainfall we have received helps, but the drought is at a level unseen for many years and will not be solved with a small series of storms,” the governor said in a news release. “In some areas, the drought is at, or near, historic levels.”
Hardest hit is San Juan County, which is experiencing “exceptional” drought, according to the federal Drought Monitor. Drought conditions in the rest of the state are categorized as extreme or severe. Six counties have already declared drought disasters.
“Such difficult conditions are harming the quality of life and the livelihoods of many Utah families and agricultural producers,” Herbert said. “The ramifications of drought extend beyond our depleted water supply. Drought harms our industries, agriculture, recreation and wildlife, and it worsens wildfire conditions and air quality.”
The governor’s declaration comes at the recommendation of a special drought-response committee convened last month by Mike Styler, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources.
“This declaration opens doors for the Utah families and industries most harmed by this drought,” Styler said. “Hopefully, it’s also an eye-opener for the rest of us, and we’re encouraged to do our part.”
Some farmers have not been able to harvest alfalfa, while some ranchers are being forced to sell their livestock at a loss, according to Agriculture and Food Commissioner LuAnn Adams.
State officials are imploring residents to conserve water by running appliances only with full loads and reduce the amount of time in the shower.
“We can’t control precipitation, but we can find opportunities to decrease our water use all year long,” Styler said. “If we all look for opportunities to conserve, we can keep a lot more water in our reservoirs, which will really help if we have another dry winter.”
The water year that ended Sept. 30 was Utah’s driest since 1895, when official weather records started being kept, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was also Utah’s second-warmest year on record, which puts even greater demands on depleted water supplies.
According to the National Weather Service, Salt Lake City received 10.5 inches of precipitation last year, about two-thirds what it normally gets. Streams around the state have run dry, including in Salt Lake City’s Emigration Canyon.
Sixteen of Utah’s major reservoirs are less than 20 percent full, according to the state, and fawn survival rate is expected to be zero for some Utah deer herds.
Meanwhile, wildfires have charred 490,000 acres this year, nearly four times the average.