ST. GEORGE — Gov. Spencer Cox issued a state of emergency for Utah on Wednesday due to the ongoing drought.
The declaration opens the way for communities, farmers and others to apply for federal aid in what is anticipated to be another bone-dry year. The 2020-21 winter season hasn’t been as wet as hoped, and 2020 overall was counted as Utah’s driest year on record.
“We’ve been monitoring drought conditions carefully and had hoped to see significant improvement from winter storms,” Cox said in a statement released Wednesday. “Unfortunately, we have not received enough snow to offset the dry conditions. I ask Utahns to evaluate their water use and find ways to save not only because of current drought conditions but also because we live in one of the driest states in the nation.”
According to Drought.gov, as of March 16, 100% of the state is identified as “abnormally dry” and experiencing at least “moderate drought” conditions, with over 90% of the state experiencing “extreme drought” conditions.
Both Iron and Washington County’s are listed as being in the higher “exceptional drought” range, which can prompt strict fire restrictions and cuts to irrigation use.
Following a record dry summer and fall, this winter’s snowpack is about 70% of average for the year. For snowpack to reach average, Utah’s mountains would need to receive the remaining 30% before it starts to melt significantly, typically the first week in April. There is an estimated 10% chance of this occurring.
Current soil moisture is also at the lowest levels since monitoring began in 2006.
“Those soils are astronomically dry,” Zach Renstrom, Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager, said Wednesday.
The dryer the soil, the more water it will soak up from rain and melting snow, keeping it from becoming runoff that makes its way to steams and other bodies of water. Predictions are also putting Virgin River’s summer water flow at lower than 50% average.
However, Renstrom said he believes recent storms in Southern Utah have helped wet the ground enough to allow for some decent runoff in the spring.
“We’re still in a drought, but I can sleep again at night,” he said. “Before the storms came in, we were in a scary situation. … We were concerned about having enough water to make our reservoirs like we’d like them to be.”
SRenstrom said he believes that thanks to the recent storms, the county’s reservoirs will be able to meet the coming summer’s demand for culinary water use.
Another worry that water district officials have due to the drought is the potential for wildfires. Large fires that ignite above streams and reservoirs can end up dumping ash, silt and debris into the water, which diminishes its quality and quantity.
This water is also becomes rather expensive and difficult to treat, Renstrom said.
Despite the sense of reprieve that came with the recent storms, Renstrom urges county water users to conserve water.
“The biggest impact people can have is in their yards, so we ask people to use their water wisely outside,” he said.
Ways people can be more mindful of their water use outdoors is through the use of smart meters that can control sprinkler times and planting water-efficient landscaping.
“We urge people to consider ways they can save water and help be part of the solution,” Brian Steed, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said in Wednesday’s statement. “The state also offers water-saving and money-saving rebates to help with both indoor and outdoor conservation.”
The last time conditions warranted a drought declaration was when former Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order in October 2018. At that time, 99% of the state was in a moderate drought, with over 76% of Utah experiencing at least severe drought conditions.
Water-saving practices the Washington County Water Conservancy District and Governor’s Office recommend residents follow include the following:
- Fixing leaks.
- Running full loads in dishwashers and washing machines.
- Turning off the water while brushing teeth, shaving, soaping up, doing dishes or rinsing vegetables.
- Reducing showers by at least one minute.
- Waiting to water.
- Planning now for the irrigation season and considering the implementation of water-wise landscaping or purchasing a smart irrigation controller.
Additional tips can be found at SlowTheFlow.org.
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