Hydrologist discusses impact of climate change on Utah’s water supply

Posted at 10:01 PM, Mar 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-27 00:01:33-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A new report released by the U.S. Department of the Interior says climate change is a growing risk to western water management.

Most of Utah’s water resources come from snowmelt, but, as Fox 13 News’ Max Roth shows us, snowmelt run-off is becoming less predictable.

“I think it’s hard to realize for most of us that live down here that water really is a limiting resource,” said Paul Brooks, a hydrologist and professor in the University of Utah’s department of Geology and Geophysics.

His class is studying snowmelt at a long-term site in northern New Mexico.

“So, we’re comparing what’s happening to the snowpack there in wet and dry years, following fires and disturbance, with what happens here in the Wasatch Front and the larger area of the central Rocky Mountains,” he said.

Brooks said those comparisons will help identify the areas in the western U.S. where water resources are the most at-risk.

“It’s that snowmelt that sustains us as a society,” he said. “Whether it’s agriculture, industry, power generation, how we have yards, how we treat our yards, how we treat our fresh water supplies, and turning on the tap.”

The water that originates in the central Rockies drives the fifth largest economy in the world. It’s distributed to eight different states and underlies the economy of 40 million people.

“It is the foundation, or the baseline, of our economic development here in the western U.S.,” Brooks said.

Brooks said each western state has about four years or less in water storage for dry times, and it's not enough.

“Demand is going to continue to increase as the population grows, and demand is going to increase as it gets warmer,” he said.

About two-thirds of Utah’s water supply comes from reservoirs, but hydrologists say they're looking into using groundwater as another resource in times of drought.

“We have an expectation as a public that there will be water available for us,” Brooks said. “And there are many private agencies, public agencies, state to the federal government, that are working to make sure we don't exceed those boundaries.”