Worsening drought could lead to water-use restrictions

Utah’s water supplies remain severely depleted heading into summer.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Low water levels at Lake Powell's Bullfrog Bay, seen here on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, have left at least 10 of the lake's public boat ramps unusable. The lake's plunging water level is the result of a 20-year drought that is reaching a crisis stage this year in the wake of one of Utah's driest winters.

As the grip of drought tightens around the West, Utahns are being urged to use less water and be extra careful to avoid triggering wildfires in the foothills and mountains, which will soon be ripe for ignition.

Utah’s water sources are alarmingly depleted in the wake of yet another winter of low precipitation, prompting Gov. Spencer Cox to warn that water restrictions could get implemented by the harder hit water districts.

“Let me just state unequivocally, guys, it’s really bad. It’s as bad as it’s been,” he told reporters at his monthly news conference Thursday. “We need everyone in the state to understand right now that we’re heading into one of the worst droughts and potentially worst fire seasons that we’ve seen.”

Cox in March declared a statewide drought emergency asking all Utahns to conserve on water, and the Legislature this week extended that state of emergency through the end of October. Many irrigation districts have already announced across-the-board cutbacks in water deliveries, but now some providers are expected to impose modest limits on yard watering, mostly prohibitions on running sprinklers during the hottest times of the day or when it’s windy.

Washington County and its cities, for example, have passed ordinances prohibiting watering between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.

“We do not anticipate any additional restrictions on our municipal water use this year given our local storage, but we are closely monitoring conditions and having ongoing discussions with our municipal partners,” said Karry Rathje, spokeswoman for the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “We are aggressively reminding residents that they should only irrigate as needed, no more than three times a week using the cycle and soak method for maximum efficiency.”

Throughout the winter and early spring, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) had been issuing warnings about Utah’s poor snowpack, dry soils, weak precipitation and low streamflows. The agency was particularly concerned that a large share of this year’s snowmelt would soak into headwater soils and not make it to downstream reservoirs.

“Unfortunately, we are now seeing that reality unfold,” the NRCS wrote in its May water supply outlook report. “Most of the water being delivered from our snowpack is staying in the headwaters and not producing a significant runoff response.”

The Wasatch canyon streams that supplement Salt Lake City’s water supplies are expected to deliver just 22% to 52% of their average projected yield, according to Laura Briefer, who heads the city’s Division of Public Utilities.

“Our stream sources look really bad. That is one of the drivers for me to consider on whether to go into the next stage on our water shortage contingency plan,” Briefer said. “Most of Salt Lake County is in ‘exceptional’ drought — the worst on the scale. Our projections from the National Weather Service show warmer and drier conditions being pervasive along this area. We are looking at very tough drought conditions that will not only affect supply but could also [increase] demand for water.”

The city is currently in stage one of its water shortage plan, which calls for voluntary actions to reduce water use.

According to NRCS’s “Snotel” monitoring network, the water held in Utah’s snowpacks was just 52% of normal as of May 1.

“Utah’s streamflow forecasts for April to July snowmelt runoff volume are generally between 20% and 60% of average, with some even as low as 15%,” the water supply report states. “Water managers should prepare for exceptionally poor to potentially worst-on-record water supply conditions for this summer, depending on which region of the state they manage.”

That means Utah’s reservoirs remain far below capacity. Not including Lake Powell and Flaming Gorge, the reservoirs stood at 69% of their 5.4 million-acre-foot capacity as of May 1, far below where they were last year. The Sevier River basin is in particularly bad shape with its reservoirs at 46% full. Gunnison Reservoir has been empty for weeks.

At Lake Powell, Utah largest reservoir, the situation is even more dire. Over the past 20 years, the lake level has dropped 140 feet, now sitting at 3,560 feet above sea level, or 35% full. During a time of year when it’s normally rebounding, Lake Powell has been shedding about an inch a day.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A houseboat on Lake Powell, seen on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, highlights the 140-foot difference between today's lake level and the lake's high-water mark.

The Bureau of Reclamation now expects the level to soon reach its lowest level since the reservoir began filling behind Glen Canyon demand in the 1960s and will likely sink to 3,525 feet by March 2022. Under a 2019 contingency agreement among Utah and three other upper Colorado River states, plans are to be developed to ensure the lake level remain above that threshold.

The falling water level is a threat to Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower operations. It would no longer be safe to run water through the dam’s hydroelectric turbines should the level reach 3,490 feet, which is a possibility under the bureau’s most recent 24-month forecast.

It’s not just the absence of water in the reservoirs that is alarming. The lack of moisture across the landscape, in the soils and plants, is an ominous sign for the upcoming fire season. Furthermore, soil temperatures remain high in many locations, including several that are seeing record highs, according to the NRCS water supply report.

This underscores the potential for a severe fire season, according to Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

“The impacts are low fuel moisture, low soil saturation and high fire danger as a result,” Curry said. “We’re going to have a higher than normal potential for large fires.”

Last year, Utah saw a record number of human-caused wildfires, mostly from fireworks, target shooting and abandoned campfires. Shooting has already triggered several fires this year.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Bureau of Land Management has announced several fire-safety restrictions on the land it oversees in Utah. Target shooters may not use exploding targets or ammunition with steel components, which are known to throw sparks after striking rocks. Fireworks are not to be ignited on public land this summer. Violations will be subject to a $1,000 fine.

The BLM, along with the rest of the Color Country Interagency Fire Management group, announced further restrictions on public lands in southwestern Utah and northern Arizona this week, including Washington, Kane, Garfield, Iron and Beaver counties. Beginning Wednesday, no fires are allowed outside agency-improved and maintained campgrounds, and all campfires are banned in Zion National Park.

“We need to do all that we can to not only take the measures to protect our homes and property but support our local firefighters and first responders,” said BLM State Fire Management Officer Chris Delaney. “This season more than ever, it is vital that we work together to help lessen the exposure for our firefighters and first responders.”