Gov. Herbert announces a state of emergency due to Utah drought

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The Spanish Oaks Reservoir is a reservoir in Utah currently affected by drought. (Lauren Hanson)

Gov. Gary R. Herbert declared a state of emergency on Oct. 15 after receiving a recommendation to do so from Utah’s Drought Review and Reporting Committee. Six Utah counties including Box Elder, Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and Wayne have also declared states of emergency because of the drought, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources’ website says all 29 Utah counties “are experiencing some level of drought” in 2018. Sixteen of Utah’s top 49 reservoirs are currently less than 20 percent full and eight are less than five percent full.

“The rainfall we have received helps, but the drought is at a level unseen for many years and will not be solved with a small series of storms. In some areas the drought is at or near historic levels,” Herbert said. “Such difficult conditions are harming the quality of life and the livelihoods of many Utah families and agricultural producers. The ramifications of drought extend beyond our depleted water supply.”

One of the largest water consumers in Utah are farmers, according to section manager at the Utah Division of Water Resources Joshua Palmer. The drought has forced farmers to sell their livestock because there isn’t enough food alive on the open range.

“Drought harms our industries, agriculture, recreation and wildlife, and it worsens wildfire conditions and air quality,” Herbert said.

Palmer said during his three and a half years at the Utah Division of Water Resources, he learned how important it is to manage water wisely, especially in a dry state.

“This year Utah didn’t do well with precipitation levels. We are seeing with climate change that Utah’s precipitation is coming down all at once and isn’t being contained in mountainous snowpacks. That’s problematic because that’s the water supply we depend on throughout the year,” Palmer said.

Julie Rose, a homeowner in Herriman, said she was surprised to hear about Herbert’s drought executive order.

“I haven’t heard anything,” Rose said. “My friend said she just happened upon something mentioning a drought, but it didn’t seem like a big deal.”

Palmer said the Utah Division of Water Resources is trying to get the word out.

The Division of Water Resources has state-wide programs no other state in the nation has, Palmer said, citing a water abuse reporting program that alerts water providers to help businesses, residents and governmental institutions manage their water usage.

“One of the things Utahns can do right now is go to utahwatersavers.com. If you don’t have a smart sprinkler timer you can get a rebate for a smart sprinkler timer that will water according to the plant’s needs,” Palmer said. “If you don’t want to worry about how many times your sprinklers go off or not watering in the rain, there is an automatic weather shut off as well. You can set the sprinkler to the most efficient setting.”

Palmer said the Utah Division of Water Resources partnered with a landscaping business called Localscapes and other landscaping companies to help residents save water in their yards.

“You can have the most beautiful landscape in your neighborhood and it will be the most water saving one too,” Palmer said.

The Division of Water Resources also has a lawn watering guide and other educational resources available on their website. Palmer said it’s time for Utahns to make little changes in their lives.

“The small changes impact our ability to supply water to our kids and grandkids. That’s a decision Utahns need to make,” Palmer said. “We need to make these changes. We are not panicking, but we have to change.”

According to Palmer, Utah is projected to have 5.8 million residents by 2035. It currently has about three million residents.

“We are looking at water shortages with the three million now. You can be sure that it will be even more challenging with 5.8 million,” Palmer said.

According to Palmer, residents are starting to talk about conserving water because of Gov. Herbert’s drought declaration, but to prevent future droughts, residents should be conserving year-round.

“There were Utahns who really conserved after a good precipitation year in 2017, and there were Utahns who didn’t, and we see the impact of not conserving in our reservoirs,” Palmer said. “If we conserved better in 2018, then some of the impacts of this drought would have lessened. A high desert state can’t waste water — every drop that people can conserve makes a huge difference.”

Palmer said The Division of Water Resources wants Utah to be a national example for what water usage, efficiency and conservation can be.

“If there is anything that Utahns are good at, it’s coming together to make a difference for the community,” Palmer said. “And we really believe that Utahns can come together on this.”

Palmer said Utahns should visit the Slow the Flow: Save H2O website to learn what they can do to be better at conserving water.

The Division of Water Resources wants Utah residents to talk about the problem and share their ideas with others, Palmer said.

“The water conservation ethic in Utah needs to increase. We want that ethic to permeate Utah’s culture because it’s going to be necessary, not only for the future of our kids and our grandkids but also the future of our environment here in Utah,” Palmer said. “Our lakes and our streams and everything else depend on us making changes — and it’s time.”

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