Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Punishing heat and sparse rain forced Utah into extreme drought conditions this year. In reaction, political leaders urged homeowners to conserve, mainly by watering their lawns only twice a week.
New data shows just how residents of the Salt Lake City area responded to that call.
Salt Lake City Public Utilities supplies water to the capital city and a smattering of east-bench neighbors, like Holladay and Cottonwood Heights. It recorded savings that reached as high as 78 million gallons in a single day.
Users saved a whopping 2.26 billion gallons from July to September, compared to an average over the same time frame the previous three years. They did, however, tap more water than normal in May and June — 650 million gallons — before those conservation calls led residents, governments and businesses to change their behavior.
Letting patches of grass turn brown had a big impact, said Laura Briefer, the utilities director. The savings this past summer mean that Deer Creek and other reservoirs that serve Salt Lake City will be well stocked next year.
But that doesn’t mean the conservation efforts can ease up — not when snow has been rare so far and forecasters expect an average winter at best.
“I’m still very concerned that we are headed into another drought year,” Briefer said, “and it will not help us recover the way we would like to.”
So expect continued calls for fewer days when the sprinklers are on, more incentives to dig up that parking strip and other ways to use less water each day.
The plan is for Utahns to consume fewer and fewer gallons decade after decade in reaction to anticipated population growth and climate change.
In 2020, the average gallons per capita used in a day amounted to 212. To get that number, the city divides total water used by the population estimate for the city. The goal in 2030 is to drop that figure to 183 and, long term, all the way down to 160.
“While we’re growing as a community,” she said, “we have to concentrate on being much more efficient and wise in our water use.”
Briefer said this continual push to use less water doesn’t mean people have to drastically change their lives or even their yards. It does mean that everyone needs to be more mindful.
Stage two conservation
Mayor Erin Mendenhall moved Salt Lake City to stage two of its conservation plan May 27. This required mandatory government action to reduce water use and encouraged residents to restrict watering their lawns. The mayor and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox urged people not to water more than twice a week.
Salt Lake City’s parks, golf courses and cemeteries saved 25% of the water compared to the three previous years. The historic Salt Lake City Cemetery actually took more water, largely because of repairs after the devastating windstorm of 2020 toppled more than 200 trees.
Public Utilities has found that about half the indoor and outdoor water use is residential. The rest comes from industrial, commercial and governmental sources.
For those concerned about indoor water, something people can address in the winter, the focus is largely on new fixtures and appliances. The goal should be to stop any leaks, and then to install low-flow toilets and more efficient washing machines and dishwashers.
Outdoor use is often a combination of efficiency and landscaping.
What about your lawn?
Even if the drought persists, Briefer said, the Salt Lake City area isn’t running out of water, not with its long-range planning and multiple reservoirs.
“But I think it’s important for us to also recognize,” she said, “that between climate change and growth in our region that we need to be very deliberate.”
That may have some thinking that Salt Lake City should adopt a look more similar to Las Vegas or Phoenix, and ditch the grass for a desert landscape. Briefer isn’t so sure. She’s not saying people have to kill their lawns.
“Even if you have turf,” she said, “you could save a lot more water by watering it appropriately and watering it with an irrigation system that isn’t wasting water through leaks or evaporation or spray.”
There’s also overwatering, which is rampant. Briefer said people don’t need to water their lawns more than three times per week.
“It certainly doesn’t need to be every day,” she said.
Residents can choose more drought-tolerant plants and grasses, or xeriscape, though Briefer warned to avoid too much gravel on parking strips that could end up in the stormwater system.
Her office is also working on other initiatives that may help. One is a pilot program to offer a low-water grass seed at cost. This is still in the works.
Public Utilities is also changing every water meter into a “smart” meter. This will allow residents to track their water use down to 15-minute increments, which will make it easier to identify leaks. Briefer’s team has 90,000 meters in the service area. Crews are about halfway through the changeover.
In addition, her office offers a free “water check” to help people calibrate their irrigation systems.
“The benefits of making these changes,” she said, “they’re so huge for now and in the future with very little impact on day-to-day life.”
The point, she said, is to get what you want out of your home and your yard but to consciously consider ways to conserve. She’s doing this at her own home.
This past summer, she skipped the vegetable garden and watered her yard sparingly. When she thinks about what she really wants out of her yard, it’s a few veggies and her fruit trees. She also would like some nice walkways. She thinks she can make some changes to get what she wants while saving a little water along the way.