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SALT LAKE CITY — The western United States is in the grip of a once-in-a-lifetime drought that is threatening millions of acres of farmland and rangeland, drying up streams and creeks and forcing people to think about alternative landscaping choices that don't suck up so much water.
"A lot of people will say this is the worst drought they have seen in their lifetime, and yes, they're right," said Joel Lisonbee, a climatologist and drought information coordinator with the National Integrated Drought Information System.
Lisonbee was a presenter on "Drought: The Silent Killer," a Thursday discussion hosted by the Utah Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD.
The drought information system, which operates under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, updated its website at drought.gov, that provides residents with down to the city information across the country regarding drought and weather trends. The drought monitor maps the entire country for dryness with assessments updated weekly.
In the webinar, Lisonbee picked his hometown of Scipio, Millard County, to walk webinar participants through drought conditions over the years.
Looking at Millard County precipitation levels over time, Lisonbee noted that the county has not been as dry as it is now since the 1930s Dust Bowl era.
In fact, the summer of 2020 was the driest ever logged in Utah and Nevada since record keeping began 126 years ago, said Laura Haskell, an engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resource's planning section.
"It was very, very hot and it was very dry," Haskell said, adding that in 20 years of tracking soil moisture levels, that last year headed into winter had the driest conditions in that time frame.
Haskell, the state's point person for the Utah Drought Response Plan, said people are working now to get the word out that outdoor watering should be delayed as long as possible to "stretch" the water storage in reservoirs through the summer.
Conditions are dry now — snowpack is in the 60% of normal range across the state — and much of the runoff will be absorbed by the thirsty ground before it ever has a chance to make it into creeks, streams and rivers that feed reservoirs, Haskell warned.
"We are trying to get the message out to slow down the water use," she said. A typical lawn watering takes 3,000 gallons of water and Haskell said it is impossible to efficiently water park strips, with moisture that falls on asphalt and sidewalks.
The division has noted that landscape watering often is influenced by a domino effect — once a neighbor starts to water, others are inspired to think they should do so as well.
"In the spring, the lawns can stay dormant a little bit longer. We're hoping people will not start watering as soon as they would do in a wetter year. Every watering people don't do, water will be saved."
Rich Linford, chairman of Utah Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, noted he removed all his sod — all 2.5 tons of it — and now has xeriscaping.
The organization is educating its members — made up of a variety of nonprofits, religious organizations and others on the front lines of disaster relief — on best practices when it comes to drought preparedness and what steps might mitigate its impacts.