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Long-term forecasts show Utah's drought possibly getting worse

Posted at 3:57 PM, Aug 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-25 19:11:46-04

LAYTON, Utah  — Long-term climate forecasts project a warmer, drier winter that could make Utah's drought situation even worse.

"Right now it looks like it’s going to be on the drier side, and that’s not the news we’re hoping for," Brian Steed, the executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources, said in an interview with FOX 13 on Wednesday.

Steed said a La Niña climate pattern has Utah sandwiched between a wetter and drier winter. Right now, the forecast is showing most of the state in a drier, warmer pattern.

"If we do have that warmer, drier fall and into winter, that’s not great news. Because we need that above-average snowpack to get us out of that danger zone," he said.

The snowpack is relied on heavily to recharge reservoirs, which supply a lot of drinking and outdoor water use. Utah has been in a drought emergency since earlier this year. As of Wednesday, 98.75% of the state was in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought — the two worst categories.

If the drought continues into next year, the state may be forced to make some difficult choices including severe water restrictions. The state will prioritize water for drinking and sanitization, but may be forced to significantly cut outdoor water use.

"There’s still a chance we could come out of it, but the reality is that we’re going to need something much higher-than-average to get back to decent levels in our reservoirs," said Tage Flint, the general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, one of Utah's largest water suppliers.

Flint told FOX 13 the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District will be shutting off secondary water supplies to a majority of their customers on Sept. 20. It's almost a month earlier than usual, to preserve a drinking water supply for roughly 700,000 people next year.

"We’ll have at least held over in our reservoirs a drinking water supply for the entire five county area next year," Flint said.

Water conservation measures pushed by the state and local water districts have helped to extend the supply, and it appears Utahns are listening to pleas to conserve. All of the state's water districts are reporting noticeable conservation measures, especially cuts to outdoor watering. Utah's Division of Water Resources said the Salt Lake City area has seen roughly 943 million gallons saved since July 1.

This year, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District instituted a "three strikes, you're out" policy. Residents who were identified as excessive water wasters would be issued a series of warnings before their water supply was shut off.

Flint said only six residential customers had their secondary water supply shut off for violations of the water restrictions.

Utahns were also apparently not afraid to report their neighbors for water wasting, either. The Utah Division of Water Resources told FOX 13 that to date, the agency's "Fame or Shame" website to report water wasting (and water conservation) had 8,190 "water shaming" tips and 114 tips praising someone for good conservation measures.

The site is used to collect tips that in turn prompts water managers to reach out to people to educate them about the drought and the importance of conservation. In all of 2020, the division said, it had 167 total reports to the site.

Meanwhile, the Utah Department of Natural Resources is meeting with leaders in the Utah State Legislature to discuss long-term policy changes to address the drought and climate situation. Ideas include agriculture optimization for a big water user in the state, incentives for people to ditch their water-hogging lawns for drought friendly plants, and more measures to protect the Great Salt Lake, a huge contributor to Utah's ecosystem.

"People have to realize we do live in a desert and living in a desert means we have to be extra cautious with the water we use," Steed said.