Salt Lake City has called on citizens to help make water supplies last through the worst drought in Utah history. Here's how to prepare.
Utah's dry, naturally variable climate has always been prone to drought. But this year, experts say, will be unlike any in recorded history.
Utah is currently in the midst of the worst drought in 125 years of recorded history, according to Jon Meyer, a climate scientist with the Utah Climate Center. With streams and reservoirs at record lows and less than one month left before the state officially enters the dry summer season, Meyer said he sees no reason to believe the drought will improve before winter.
“We're in a holding pattern hoping the next month will bring good rainfall,” he said. “Nothing in the forecast indicates that's going to happen.”
This summer's drought is technically two years old, according to Meyer, as the state's water reserves began to decline last summer amid some of the hottest and driest weather. Although this past winter wasn't exceptionally dry, it wasn't enough to make up for last summer's intense heat. Because of that deficit, thirsty soils are soaking up the melting snow before it reaches streams and reservoirs, which means the state will have to rely on existing water storage for the second year in a row.
Salt Lake City should be in reasonably good shape, according to Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities. While many of the state's reservoirs and water systems are built to withstand two years of insufficient snow and rain, the city is prepared to weather a five-year drought, she said. It's not likely that anyone's tap will run dry.
Still, Salt Lake City has called on residents to curtail water use, especially outdoors, to be sure the city's water supplies last. Mayor Erin Mendenhall implemented Stage 1 of the city's water shortage contingency plan in March, which aims to reduce city-wide water consumption by asking residents to voluntarily reduce their outdoor water use, especially lawn watering. Briefer said she plans to ask the mayor to implement Stage 2 of the plan, which requires government facilities such as schools and parks to cut back on outdoor water use.
Although Briefer said she believes the city will remain in Stage 2 for the remainder of this year, she said she has told city staff to prepare for Stage 3, the point at which outdoor watering restrictions become mandatory for businesses and residents, and violations could be subject to fines.
Stephanie Duer, water conservation manager for Salt Lake City Public Utilities, said that this year, more than ever, residents need to ask themselves whether any water use “is a worthy use of this water right now, given storage is limited.”
“Stored water is in a sense borrowed water,” she said.
The easiest way to make a big reduction in your water use is to cut back on watering your lawn, according to Courtney Brown, conservation programs manager at the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District.
Watering a quarter-acre lot once requires 3,000 gallons of water, Brown said. If residents avoid watering on rainy, overcast or windy days, or reducing their watering to no more than three times per week – those adjustments can make a big difference.
“It's surprising to people. They think in terms of turning off the water when brushing their teeth or taking a shorter shower, which is great,” he said. “But it pales in comparison to the amount of water that goes on landscapes. In many cases, a small behavioral change can save a huge amount of water without costing anything.”
For residents with automatic underground sprinkler systems, the most important action they can take is to keep a close eye on their sprinkler controls, Brown said. Installing a smart controller, which adjusts scheduled watering according to the weather, or even turning the automated programming off and managing the system manually can make a big difference for the city's water supplies – and the resident's water bill.
“Automatic sprinkler controllers are a convenience, but that convenience comes with a cost in wasted water,” Brown said. “If you can take control of that and maybe give up some convenience, you can save a lot of water.”
Smart controllers that attach to a hose are also available for those who use above-ground sprinklers connected to a hose spigot. However, Brown said individuals who water by hand are the city's most efficient water users.
Those who don't have automated systems can follow the state's weekly county-by-county watering guidelines, which are issued each week at conservewater.utah.gov/weekly-lawn-watering-guide.
While Utah communities aren't likely to experience shortages of drinking water this year, Meyer said the need to conserve this summer is critical to preventing potential shortages next year if Utah does not get enough snow and the drought continues for a third consecutive year.
“This is really a make or break time for our reservoirs,” he said. “Using extra water right now, in places we might not really need it, will stress our resources now and especially down the road. Reservoirs are built to get us through a year or two of drought, but that water won't last forever.”
Resources for Saving Water
- County-by-county lawn watering guidelines are updated weekly at conservewater.utah.gov/weekly-lawn-watering-guide
- To determine your eligibility for state rebates on tools such as smart meters and for other free resources, sign up at UtahWaterSavers.com.
- To have an expert from Utah State University come to your house and provide a free landscape and water use consultation, sign up at cwel.usu.edu/watercheck.
- Beginning in July or August of this year, Salt Lake City plans to provide residents with bags of low-cost lawn seed which can be applied to an existing lawn without killing it to gradually replace the grass with a variety that requires less water. To learn more and sign up when the program becomes available, visit slc.gov/utilities/conservation.
- To report wasteful watering, call 801-483-6860 so that Salt Lake City water conservation experts can provide educational materials and resources for the property in question.