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Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Salt Lake County to cut back water use by at least 5% amid drought; mayor urges residents to do the same

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Apr. 22, 2021 at 6:26 p.m.

DRAPER — As Utah continues to experience some of its driest conditions on record, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Thursday that Utah's most-populated county has pledged to cut back "a minimum" of 5% of its normal water usage.

"Water conservation is critical to us and we must lead by example," she said. "We've learned that we're doing well but we can do more at Salt Lake County."

Per the county's calculations, cutting back 5% of the county's daily water use would save nearly 43.4 million gallons of water between May and October this year alone. The period between those months is when water is most consumed during a year.

The county also launched a new website aimed at showing residents how they could conserve more water amid the county's and state's growing drought situation. Standing at a podium inside the Draper Recreation Center, Wilson urged county residents to find ways to cut back 5% of their own private usage.

About 2 million gallons of water could be saved daily if a quarter of the county's population cut back 5% of their own water use, the mayor said. That's equivalent to about enough to fill nine lap pools.

Simple solutions to cut back include taking shorter showers, being aware when water is running and not being used or watering lawns less.

Cynthia Bee, a spokesperson for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, said about 65% of most residents' total water use for a year goes toward water landscapes. She said the average daily use should be 0% right now since there has still been enough precipitation recently to keep lawns properly watered.

"And the longer you can stretch that out before you start watering your yard, the healthier your landscape is going to be, which is completely counterintuitive," she said. "This is the time of the year to train your turf. Let it stretch its roots out and grow a little bit deeper and you'll actually create a landscape that's more resilient and able to handle whatever we're going to have thrown at us this summer."

Bee said watering should begin in May and urged residents to water one less time every week, pointing out that a lawn doesn't need to be watered daily. That's true of even the hottest period of the year in July and August.

For water conservation experts like Bee, she said that perhaps the current drought situation could serve as a way to rethink how lawns are used in the state. Lawns, she said, are recreational and used for playing.

"Lawn isn't bad, we're just using it badly," she said. "There's no reason to have lawn in park strips. Side yards are generally just a pass-through from the front to back, so you can look at places that you've got lawn but it's not really serving a purpose. Anywhere you've got lawn that's less than 8 feet wide, irritation isn't as efficient in those little small strips and areas."

The county's pledge Thursday comes after Gov. Spencer Cox issued an emergency order in relation to drought conditions last month. The order called on local governments to come up with plans to reduce water consumption.

Shortly after that was signed, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced a "Stage 1 Advisory" for Salt Lake City and the municipalities that Salt Lake City's public utilities serve. The advisory was more of an educational tool but the city could place punishments if the water situation worsens.

Cox's order and other plans announced are a result of going drought conditions in the state and across most of the West.

Utah, as a whole, experienced its driest calendar year on record last year. That was followed by a below-average snowpack this winter. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which calculates western snowpacks, reported that Utah's snowpack peaked on March 26 at a little more than 80% of the average snowpack for that time in the season.

According to the agency, the normal peak is about April 5. While Earth Day is weeks past even that average peak date, it listed the Thursday snowpack as about 64% of the average for this point in the year.

Salt Lake County Watershed Manager Bob Thompson said many parts of the Great Basin experienced the driest 10-month period on record, especially at the end of 2020 into earlier this year.

Take the National Weather Service's Salt Lake City station as an example of the county's situation. Last year was the second-driest calendar year and 16th driest water year on record for the station that has collected city weather data since 1874. Most of the water collected was prior to spring 2020, which was particularly dry for the city.

Conditions have somewhat improved in 2021 so far, this year but not by much. Data shows that water collected so far is 3.60 inches below average at this point into the 2021 water year, which actually began on Oct. 1, 2020. Entering Thursday, it was also 0.53 inches below average in the 2021 calendar year, which is any precipitation collected since Jan. 1.

All of this has been coupled with above-average temperatures. 2020 was the eighth-warmest calendar year on record for Utah and sixth-warmest for Salt Lake City. Data shows the first three months of 2021 all produced above-normal average temperatures for the city, as well.

This is what has fueled severe drought conditions across the county and most of the state. The U.S. Drought Monitor listed 57% of the state in "exceptional" drought status and at least 90% in "extreme" drought status in its weekly update Thursday.

"Most of the Wasatch Front is considered to be in an exceptional drought, which is the most exceptional kind of drought. The Salt Lake Valley and East Bench are considered to be an extreme drought condition, which isn't as serious but still very dry," Thompson said. "Below-average snowpack will also likely result in lower-than-average spring runoff flows in our streams and rivers, which means there will be less water available for lakes and reservoirs to fill."

The ongoing conditions and current projections are what prompted last month's emergency order and the growing number of calls to reduce water consumption across the state.

"Saving water doesn't need to be hard. It can actually be quite easy," Wilson said. "You don't have to overhaul your lifestyle, you just have to make some tweaks to how you do things."

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