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Utah's state of emergency for drought may get extended

Posted at 4:42 PM, Sep 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-14 19:56:38-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Department of Natural Resources is recommending the legislature extend the state of emergency for drought, FOX 13 has confirmed.

"In looking at the conditions, it’s really hard for me right now not to just extend or to ask for the extension of the drought declaration simply because conditions merit," DNR Executive Director Brian Steed said.

The recommendation is expected to be made at a meeting during the Utah State Legislature's interim session on Wednesday. Utah has been in a state of emergency for drought since March. The emergency declaration will expire at the end of October and DNR is recommending that it be extended until the end of this year.

Under recent law changes, the governor can declare a state of emergency — but the legislature can extend or end it.

Water managers updated lawmakers on drought conditions and discussed some policy recommendations at a meeting Tuesday of the legislature's water resources committee. There is some good news to report: 88% of the state is now in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. In July, the entire state was in the two worst drought categories.

Utahns were also heeding calls to conserve water. Salt Lake City Public Utilities reported 1.8 billion gallons of water had been saved over the summer as a result of people cutting back on water use.

But the long-term forecast is for a drier-than-average winter, which is bad news for next year. Reservoirs are already at historic lows.

"We are hopeful that we’re going to get the banner year and get out of this drought but we’re also planning in case that is not the case," said Candice Hasenyager, the director of Utah's Division of Water Resources.

The briefing led to some policy discussions about what to do if the drought continues into next year. FOX 13 has previously reported that the state would prioritize drinking and sanitization water as resources get stretched even thinner.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said the state needs to focus on more reservoirs and water systems.

"Building more dams and more reservoirs is a good thing. We ought to be looking out for our grandkids and our great-grandkids just like our pioneers looked out for us," he said.

Others called for more assertion of water rights and new pipeline projects. But lawmakers are also being asked to consider conservation measures including an expansion of secondary water metering and an idea to allow the state to purchase water rights to ensure less diversion to places like the Great Salt Lake.

"It is a significant change. But it is a significant change in order to allow things like the Great Salt Lake and others to have the waters it needs," Steed told FOX 13.

Zachary Frankel of the environmental group Utah Rivers Council questioned if lawmakers were doing enough, noting continued declines in water resources.

"If climate change is real and human beings are causing it, the Colorado River’s declining 20% in the last 20 years compared to the 20th century average," he said, asking them to consider if declines end up being closer to 40%.

Lawmakers will consider some of the policy changes at its upcoming session that begins in January, but one thing that could turn around the drought is a bigger snowpack.

"Every day we pray that this winter we will have snow in the mountains so that we can have the water we need next year," said Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City.