Robert Gehrke: Utah is in a severe drought and we must act

Utah clearly wastes water when compared to other dry states.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Right now, Utah is in the midst of what could well be the worst drought in our lifetimes.

Before the most recent round of storms almost the entire state was experiencing extreme drought conditions and more than 80% of the state was at an even higher level — exceptional drought — something we typically only see in slivers of the state every few years.

And there’s not a lot of hope it will change. Spring and summer models from the National Weather Service are forecasting hotter temperatures and drier conditions than normal, meaning an elevated risk of extreme fires, low levels in rivers and reservoirs and potentially devastating impacts to farmers and ranchers.

As of March 1, reservoirs statewide were half empty (or half full, if you’re an optimist) and Lake Powell was at just 40% capacity.

Utah’s leaders are not optimists.

Gov. Spencer Cox, earlier this month, declared a state of emergency, and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued an advisory last Wednesday, urging residents to do what they can to conserve.

It is a dire situation — and one we should prepare to confront for years.

This map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Integrated Drought Information System shows that most of Utah is currently facing "exceptional" drought conditions, the highest category in the agencies' scale.

For more than 20 years, almost without exception, Utah has experienced abnormally dry conditions. And for most of that time, large swaths of the state have endured moderate to severe drought. Scientists refer to it as the “millennium drought” — pinning the start to about the year 2000 — and researchers at Utah State University wrote recently that, thanks to climate change, temperatures will continue to rise and drought and wildfire will become more common.

“To some extent, I think this is a wake-up call to state government,” Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, told me last week.

“The present condition right now is not unique. It’s not a surprise. It’s been the norm since 2000,” he said. “Scientists and the majority of water managers in the West take it deadly seriously. Everyone projects into the future and says, ‘This may be the way it will be or it may be worse than this.’ But we should not view this as a one-off situation.”

If scientists and western water officials are taking it seriously, though, Utah residents aren’t getting the message.

Utah is the second-driest state, behind only Nevada, yet residents use more water per capita than any other state but Idaho, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

According to the USGS data, Utah residents use about 10% more water per capita than those in Nevada, 18% more than Arizona and 33% more than Colorado.

“We’re among the biggest water-wasters,” said Zach Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council.

With one of the fastest-growing populations in the country, you can see how that’s not tenable. (Utah officials caution against comparing data between states because Utah figures include more water uses than other states.)

How did we get here? The answer is decades of careless water policy that actually encourages extravagant use over careful conservation.

Consider this: Residents in most Utah cities pay less per gallon for their water than those in surrounding states. And, unlike many places, Utah’s rates don’t increase much if a user is using a lot of water or a little. That price signal sends a message that water is of little value and provides no incentive to be smart about how much water we use.

Almost all of the state’s secondary water, untreated water used for irrigation, is not metered at all, so there’s no way to know how much is used and how much users should be paying. Most pay a flat rate.

On top of that, water is heavily subsidized by property taxes paid to the various water districts. In some cases half to as much as 80% of the cost of operating a water district has traditionally been paid for out of property taxes.

The problem with that is, again, if you’re paying the same regardless of how much water you use, there’s no incentive to use less.

On top of that, the data we’re basing our decision-making on has been tenuous. In 2015, for example, state officials mistakenly provided legislative auditors with the water usage data for Saratoga Springs, N.Y., instead of Saratoga Springs, Utah.

Now, the state has taken baby steps to fix some of these problems. Data gathering has improved. A 2019 law requires some larger water districts to adopt tiered pricing, said Rachel Shilton, water basin planning manager with the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Another bill requires meters on some new secondary water delivery systems, but leaves existing systems unchecked. It was an attempt to “stop the bleeding,” the sponsor, Sen. Jake Anderegg, told me.

It’s a start, but it’s not enough.

Utah’s conservation goal — recently revised to 16% statewide over 15 years — is timid compared to goals in surrounding states.

At the same time, Utah is pushing to spend a few billion dollars on the Lake Powell Pipeline to stick another straw in a diminishing resource so Kane and Washington counties can have green lawns and golf courses.

The solutions will need to be sweeping and should be at the center of every decision we make. They’ll include more aggressive conservation, putting an actual price on water, revisiting our agricultural uses (which still consume roughly 80% of our water), expanding metering of secondary water, and addressing our aging infrastructure — and a lot more. None of it will be easy.

But with our state adding 2 million people by 2055 and warming temperatures all but assured, the nexus between water scarcity and climate change will be the single most critical issue Utah leaders face.