Utah faces worst drought period since Middle Ages

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Utah is currently going through a megadrought, facing the driest 20-year period since the Middle Ages according to BYU ecosystem ecology professor Ben Abbott.

Abbott said the current conditions Utahns are facing aren’t just a regular drought, but a megadrought, a dry period that lasts more than 10 years.

Anyone born in the ’90s or later in the Western U.S. hemisphere has been experiencing drought conditions their entire lives, he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of the state is on level D4, a level of exceptional drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the dry conditions Utah is under. Utah is mostly dark red, showing the exceptional drought conditions it is under currently. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Gov. Spencer Cox issued a drought executive order on May 13, stating that 90% of Utah is currently going through extreme drought.

Gov. Cox declared a state of emergency, and has officially begun the process for federal emergency resources to be accessed. In the Drought Review and Reporting Committee meeting on March 15, he asked Utahns to “evaluate their water use and find ways to save,” because Utah is also one of the driest states in the U.S.

Megadrought: Human-caused climate change

BYU biology graduate student Kala’i Ellis said the drought conditions Utahns are currently experiencing are not isolated occurrences but are an expression of human-caused climate change.

The long-term solution for megadrought is to decrease fossil fuel combustion so that the climate can return to normal, Abbott said.

The past winter was a record dry one, and there was not enough snow to fill the reservoirs that Utahns use during the spring and summer.

Rick Maloy, water conservation manager of Central Utah Water said “(Utahns) have had historically low and one of the worst winters on record.”

Maloy said that if the driest soils on record, the lowest precipitation on record, and some of the highest temperatures on record are combined, it creates a bleak outlook that is very concerning.

Water regulation

“We need to regulate water consumption at all levels, on the personal, urban, commercial and especially agricultural and rangeland levels,” Ellis said. “It’ll take a concentrated effort across all these levels to decrease water use and hold us through the drought until we get more rainfall.”

Abbott said Utah is a great place to live, however, the laws, policies and behaviors need to be changed to stop climate change and water waste in the state. He said state legislators are responding to the megadrought by creating proposals to build more dams.

However, “building more dams won’t help in any way if the rain and snow never come, Abbott said. “We need to manage our demand as individuals and as a society to live within our means regarding water.”

Abbott said since much of Utah is in the Great Basin, the area is extremely sensitive to climate change and human water use. Recognizing the limited water resources that Utahns have and changing behavior to live within these limits will be the best solution during the megadrought for the short-term.

Ways to conserve water

One way Utahns can conserve water is through focusing on limiting outdoor water use, Maloy said.

More than 60% of water used within the cities of Utah are used on residential landscapes, he said. By cutting back watering lawns and plants to two days a week or delaying watering by installing smart irrigation controllers, water use could be cut considerably.

BYU campus is known for its beautiful lawns and grounds. BYU has recently finalized installing smart irrigation controllers across campus, which will reduce irrigation water consumption by 20%-50%. (Addie Blacker)

BYU Media Relations Manager Todd Hollingshead said BYU Grounds recently finalized a 5-year project installing smart irrigation controllers across campus, which will reduce irrigation water consumption by 20%-50%.

Hollingshead said BYU is making extensive conservation efforts because of the governor’s declaration of drought across Utah. The May 5 Y News newsletter said “BYU Grounds is working to monitor drought conditions and conserve precious resources while maximizing water access.”

Maloy said another alternative is replacing lawns with something more drought-tolerant and better suited for the climate.

“When most people replace their lawn, they put in bark mulch or rock mulch with plants around areas,” he said. “The park strips could be replaced with flowers like perennials and other plants that are more suited for the climate but don’t also require a lot of irrigation water.”

Anyone can make a change

Utahns can conserve water by taking simple steps. Ellis said that actively going through every day and making a conscious effort to decrease water usage can be a simple way to conserve water.

“If you have a yard, do not water it during the middle of the day, the majority of the water will evaporate away,” he said. “Cut down on how long you shower or take a bath, stop running the water before getting into the shower. Try to maximize your laundry loads.”

Maloy said that everyone interacts with water and everyone can make an impact.

“We use millions and millions of gallons of water every day, and if everyone can save just a little bit of water, it adds up really quickly. It’s noticeable when people make shifts as a community, waiting for your neighbor or waiting for somebody else to do it means that it will never happen,” Maloy said.

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