Gov. Herbert rescinds 2018 emergency drought declaration; Southern Utah still in moderate drought

ST. GEORGE — Following a cooler, wetter winter, Gov. Gary Herbert has officially rescinded last year’s executive order declaring a state of emergency due to drought.   

A map comparing last year’s drought conditions in Utah to this year’s | Image courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Herbert declared the state of emergency in October 2018, when nearly 100% of the state was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions. However, that number has dropped to 16% of the state in 2019 – primarily in Southern Utah and including most of Washington County, which is still experiencing moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor

“Most of the state hasn’t seen a drought that severe that covered as much of the state,” Laura Haskell, drought specialist for water resources at the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told St. George News.  

The last time the state experienced such a severe drought was from 2002-2004. 

The drastic change from last year is simply part of normal cyclical weather patterns, Haskell said, adding that in stark contrast to the previous winter, 2019 had a lot more winter precipitation, cooler than average temperatures and increased snowpack. 

In addition to having less snowpack in 2018, the temperatures were higher and the snow melted much earlier than normal, leaving local reservoirs with less water. 

“This year winter dragged on,” Utah Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Nathan Schwebach told St. George News. “Cooler temperatures lasted longer. We had more snow on the ground, so it melted more slowly, which is beneficial for the reservoirs.” 

Winter and spring precipitation this year was well above normal across the state, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, with regional water supplies ranging from 110-200% of their normal levels

In Southern Utah, St. George saw record-breaking levels of precipitation in the spring, and the Virgin River water supply has been averaging 150-200% of its normal level. 

“What a difference a year makes,” Herbert said in a press release announcing the rescinding of the state of emergency. “Utah experienced unprecedented drought conditions last year, which harmed the livelihood of many families and strained agricultural producers, industry and even wildlife and recreation.”

Herbert initially declared the state of emergency last year to allow drought-affected communities and farmers to be able to access state or federal resources, when the impacts of the drought were widespread across the state.

Even moderate drought can limit feed for cattle in pastures. When that drought reaches severe, extreme or exceptional levels, the impacts can include dry streams and ponds, stressed native vegetation, poor air quality and inadequate pastures and water for cattle, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Additionally, irrigation water allotments have to be cut. 

Last year, over 87% of the state experienced severe to exceptional drought conditions. 

In addition to local water restrictions that are often put in place, droughts negatively affect local plant and animal life and increase fire danger. 

“With drought, a lot of the plant life, a lot of the animals, just rely on the precipitation that falls and what’s there available,” Haskell said. “And when we have a drought it can very heavily impact the plant and animal life in an area because they can’t move water and go get water the same as people can.” 

While most of the state is now experiencing either no drought or just abnormally dry weather, Southern Utah saw a very light late-season monsoon season, with St. George seeing its driest season since 1944, and Haskell still recommends conscientious water usage. 

“We have water. Our reservoirs are at a good level. However, we want to still be careful with what we have. We always want to be careful with the water we have because it is a limited resource,” Haskell said.

More information on current drought conditions can be found here

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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