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SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in 10 years, extreme drought conditions have triggered an emergency meeting of the Utah Drought Review and Reporting Committee. The meeting of state department heads only happens when the surface water index drops to a dangerous level for communities across the state.
They’re taking a close look at the impacts of drought to determine whether an emergency declaration is necessary, and have urged all Utahns to conserve.
"It's more important than ever that we don't waste water," said Joshua Palmer, water efficiency education and engagement section manager for the Utah Division of Water Resources. "In Utah, water efficiency should just always be important. It needs to be one of Utah's core ethics."
All of Utah under drought conditions
In the meeting, department heads presented the ways in which drought has impacted tourism, wildlife, agriculture and the economy. Few Utah homes have had enough rain in their neighborhoods this summer. A look at the latest U.S. drought monitor map shows that all of Utah is under at least moderate drought conditions with other areas severe, extreme, and even exceptional.
"We've had years that were much worse," said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
He said an extended drought has gripped Utah for the last six years. The exception: two phenomenally wet months, December and January in the winter of 2016-17.
"We had about 300 to 400 percent precipitation during that time frame," said McInerney. "Two months time. What that did is put enough snow to the mountains that we filled the reservoirs."
That put Utah in good shape water wise, until last winter, which was dismal.
Still impacted by last year’s drought
"One of the driest winters we've ever recorded in both snowpack and stream flow," he said. "That put us in the tank."
Right now, hydrologically, Utah is headed into the upcoming water year with 65 percent reservoir storage, with persistent hot and dry conditions.
LuAnn Adams, Utah's commissioner of agriculture and food, said ranchers are selling cattle because there's no feed. The hay shortage will intensify.
"Some of them will go out of business," she said of the state's farmers and ranchers. "It’s hard. If you don’t have your numbers and you're having to sell your cattle or your sheep, or you didn't get sufficient crops, you still have bills to pay. So, it's a really tough year."
We are calling on all of Utah's citizens to make a difference, to be as efficient as possible.
–Joshua Palmer, Utah Division of Water Resources
She hoped the governor would declare a drought emergency to trigger federal assistance. The drought has also intensified wildfires, killed wildlife and hampered the economy statewide.
"We are calling on all of Utah's citizens to make a difference," said Palmer, "to be as efficient as possible."
"To make sure that we're using the water that we need, but we're not wasting water, especially in a time of drought," said Palmer.
What will it take to turn this drought around?
The hydrologist said Utah needs a break in the high pressure for an extended period of time during the winter to give the state good precipitation and good spring runoff.
Unfortunately, McInerney said our weather is trending toward longer periods of high pressure with warm conditions, low snowpack, followed by intense storminess.
"We've had record low snowpacks, record low stream flows," he said of our weather this year. "We've had very hot, dry conditions this summer, record-breaking in some areas. Now, we are moving into 2019 and the key is we need some rain."