Utah’s water outlook slightly improved, but West remains in grip of long-term drought

Some members of the water development commission suggested Utah needs to dam more rivers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River in northern Arizona, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Utah’s drought-induced water crisis has softened somewhat after a string of monsoons, but the state’s water supplies are far from safe, with reservoirs across the state falling below 40% full, state officials told lawmakers Tuesday. Only a massive snowpack this winter can assure adequate supplies going into next year, and even then, Utah’s water future remains uncertain in the face of long-term drought and climate change.

In July the entire state was in extreme or exceptional drought and Utah’s two largest lakes hit their lowest levels ever.

“We are setting all the wrong records,” Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, told the Legislative Water Development Commission. “Then came August. We had some great monsoon season, which we didn’t receive the previous year.”

August precipitation was four times normal in many places.

“Fast forward to last week on Sept. 7, where 88% of the state is extreme and exceptional drought. So our drought conditions have improved,” Hasenyager said “That being said, we are not out of the woods yet and there are still some really significant concerns going into this winter.”

All eyes are fixated on the Colorado River, a water source that supplies much of the American Southwest. Its flows have diminished so much after 20 years of drought and warming temperatures that a shortage was declared last month in the river’s Lower Basin States and Utah’s Lake Powell is looking more like a puddle than the nation’s second-largest reservoir.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has forecast that by next May the lake will fall to the point where hydropower cannot be generated at Glen Canyon Dam, said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River Authority commissioner. To reduce the risk of that happening, the bureau is releasing 181,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge and two other Upper Basin reservoirs this summer and fall.

“Depending on how you look at the numbers, it’s the second or third-driest year on record on the Colorado River,” Shawcroft said. “All of the reservoirs are below their minimum elevations of the past. So we are in uncharted territory.

Some members of the water development commission suggested the drought creates a need to dam more Utah rivers.

“Are we looking at other storage sites in the state?” said Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield. “It’s past time that we looked at other storage facilities on different drainages.”

Describing himself as an optimist, Albrecht said he believes the West’s drought will end and Utah should position itself to capture the water when heavy snows return.

“Increased storage will be a major factor in the future as we grow. We’re going to have put a wall around our boundaries,” Albrecht said. “People are moving in here like crazy.”

Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council pushed back, arguing that Utah’s water needs will decline as water-intensive agriculture is displaced by the very growth Albrecht described.

“We’re converting our farmland to blacktop, subdivisions, shopping malls and homes. And because municipal lands use less water per acre than agricultural lands, it’s leading to a growth in our water supply,” Frankel said.

He said you will find eight pages of water rights posted for sale on KSL.com, showing a vibrant market for water that’s available along the Wasatch Front.

“When you calculate how much water is going to be available from the unfortunate paving of our agricultural lands just along the Wasatch Front, there’s a surplus of municipal water,” he said. “So that raises the questions: Should we just ignore that water in favor of new [water] development? Are we so eager to build reservoirs at very high costs to the Utah taxpayer that we’re willing to ignore the water in these canals?”