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Utah prepares for water shortages in ongoing drought emergency

Outdoor watering could be cut next year if drought continues
Drought in a Corinne field
Reservoir levels in Utah June 29, 2021
Posted at 4:21 PM, Jun 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-29 20:04:37-04

SALT LAKE CITY  — As Utah's drought emergency continues, state officials are looking at the potential for water shortages that would necessitate rationing.

"We’re really hopeful that future water years are better than this one. That being said, we’ve got to plan what we expect to be the situation. I would just be very, very wary of how we use water this year. I think we have to plan on it maybe not being better next year," Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Brian Steed said in an interview with FOX 13.

Water districts have said there is believed to be enough of a supply to cover this year. But if we don't see heavier snowpacks and reservoirs filling back up, state officials are bracing for potentially rationing water next year.

"We’re not there yet and we really hope we don’t get to the point where rationing begins," Steed said. "That being said, yes, there will be less water and the first thing that will be asked to be cut will be outdoor water."

Communities across Utah are becoming increasingly worried about this year's water supply. In the northern Utah community of Hyde Park, Mayor Charles Wheeler sent out an emergency notice to his community. He warned that at the rate citizens were burning through water, their tanks would be empty by Saturday.

"We are using more water than we can provide," Mayor Wheeler told FOX 13.

Part of the issue has been being able to recharge the city's water tanks because of increased demand. But he has now called on residents to cut outdoor water use by 50% because it will impact fire suppression efforts and even indoor water use.

On Tuesday, FOX 13 spotted people watering lawns in the middle of the day in Hyde Park. The area is considered to be an "extreme" level of drought (the worst stage is "exceptional" where roughly 70% of Utah is now). Mayor Wheeler said people's ideas of a lush green lawn need to change.

"They need to conserve water for the health and safety of the people of Hyde Park," he said.

A map provided to FOX 13 by Utah's Division of Water Resources shows reservoir levels dropping quickly. Bear Lake is at 59% of full. Jordanelle is at about 71%, while the Lower Enterprise and Piute reservoirs are at 13% and Moon Lake is at 19%. Lake Powell is at 34% full.

Gunnison is completely dry, according to the map.

Reservoir levels in Utah June 29, 2021
Reservoir levels as reported by Utah's Division of Water Resources.

Steed said we are seeing water levels that typically would be in September, when resources are at their lowest. Utah's agriculture industry, a big user, has gotten 75% less water than it typically gets.

"We’ve had an incredibly low water year, coupled with snow pack and add that to the extraordinary dry soil conditions that we have," he said.

But if the drought continues into 2022, Utah will have to make some tough policy decisions. State law does allow for water rationing in emergency situations, including the potential for shutoffs of outdoor water use.

"People need water to live, so we will prioritize culinary water, water for sanitation and water for fire suppression," Steed said of the worst-case scenario.

The state estimates that as much as 60% of water use set aside for residential use is outdoors. It is why policy makers are pushing for revisiting how Utah landscapes. Some communities have started to ban future developments from installing sod, eliminating water features and pressuring residents to only water two or three times a week, and never in the middle of the day.

Steed noted that Utah continues to grow in population, but water is a finite resource. The Utah State Legislature is expected to advance a number of policies in response to the ongoing drought emergency.

Conserving water now means there will be some tomorrow, Steed said.

"What we do this year really will have an impact on next year if this drought continues," he said.