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Cox tightens fireworks restrictions, wants to 'make yellow lawns great again' as Utah's dry conditions worsen

Gov. Spencer Cox talks about ways Utahns can prevent wildfires during a press conference in City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. One hundred percent of Utah is in drought with 90% of the state in extreme drought. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News, File)



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SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah continues to deal with growing issues from its prolonged drought, Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday again made a plea for Utahns to conserve water and announced a ban on fireworks on all state-managed lands and all unincorporated places in Utah as a part of his third executive order tied to worsening drought.

"These conditions are adversely and significantly impacting agribusiness and livestock production, wildlife and natural habitats and waterways throughout the state," the governor said, standing outside of the Utah Capitol. "Extremely dry conditions have also attributed to an increased threat of wildfire across the state."

The executive order includes a firework ban on land managed by Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, commonly referred to as SITLA.

While fireworks are banned in Utah until July 2 anyway, Cox said no decisions have been made yet regarding fireworks in municipalities but that could change before July 2. He planned to meet with the Legislature to review the situation and said Tuesday afternoon that he would support further action against fireworks this year based on current conditions.

"There could be some exceptions to that," he added, noting some municipalities have restricted fireworks to certain city parks where firefighters could be on hand to douse a fire.

The order also restricts watering at state-owned facilities to twice a week, down from an additional day that was previously allowed.

At least 90% of the state remains in at least an "extreme" drought and 62% is listed in an "exceptional" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. This year has shown the driest Utah soil levels in the over 20-year history of the monitor.

While the order only focused on state facilities, Cox said he did support municipalities' crackdowns on wasted water that have included fines and even threats of shutting off secondary water for repeat offenders. With that in mind, he made a push for Utahns to "make yellow lawns great again" by reducing outdoor watering.

"We want to let people know it's going to be OK to have a yellow lawn this year," he said. "We want all of our friends, HOAs, cities and towns to know that this is one of those years that it's going to be OK. Your lawn will be OK if it's yellower this year."

Candice Hasenyager, the deputy director for the Utah Division of Water Resources, added that northern Utah lawns can survive with just two waterings a week and southern Utah lawns can survive with three.

"We are in a mode of surviving, not thriving," she said. "Prioritize your watering. Water trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals before your grass. Grass is tough, it'll enter a phase of dormancy and will rebound when the conditions improve."

Cox hinted there might be more legislation in the future tied to secondary water metering and also to park strips.

Drying conditions and the impact on Utah's water supply

Statewide reservoir levels are now 15% lower than levels reported at the same point in the year 2020 and most of the streams in Utah are running at less than 50% of normal, according to Hasenyager.

"While we've experienced droughts in the past, the intensity and the fact we haven't had any relief has created this extreme situation," she said.

To be clear, there are no immediate threats to the amount of drinking water available in the state; however, the big reason why Cox and water experts are pushing for more conservation now is that there is no way of knowing how long the drought will last and it helps to preserve drinking water in case the situation gets even worse.

Some Utah reservoirs dry out entirely by the end of a summer but the list is expected to grow in 2021. Yuba, Koosharem and Otter Creek reservoirs are among the most at risk to dry out this year, Cox said.

"Utah is in extreme drought, extreme conservation measures are needed by all of us," Hasenyager added. "We don't know how long this drought will last. That's out of our control but what's in our control is how we respond and what we do as individuals, families, businesses, institutions and industries to conserve water wherever we can."

Jordan Clayton, the supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, told KSL TV Tuesday that the poor streamflow combined with the lower reservoir levels has dropped the water supply in more than half of Utah's basins into the bottom 10th percentile compared to recent decades. While Cox said Tuesday that the drought was about as bad as one in 1956, Clayton said the conditions across Utah are the worst the state has experienced since at least 1977.

"For a bunch of basins in the state, we're actually looking at potentially record-low water supply conditions," he said. "That would be the number one thing that we're concerned about."

A lot of the issues were developed from the lack of precipitation that began last year. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Environmental Information reported that 2020 was the driest year on record for all of Utah.

Earlier Tuesday, NCEI updated preliminary 2021 U.S. climate data through May to show that statewide precipitation levels had fallen again, listing 2021 as the eighth-driest year on record through that month. It was previously the 16th-driest through April and 33rd driest through March, showing the lack of overall precipitation during the spring months.

In addition, the National Weather Service's station in Salt Lake City has received just 7.9 inches since the start of the 2021 water year, which was Oct. 1, 2020. While there is still a little more than 100 days left in the water year, that total would be the city's driest water year on record unless the station receives a quarter of an inch of rain between now and the end of September.

Clayton said that, statewide, Utah would need about 0.7 inches just to reach the previous water year minimum and 9 inches to reach the normal level of precipitation from at least the past three decades. The lack of precipiation meant that a large portion of the snow that landed in the mountains this winter melted into the soils instead of running off into Utah's streams.

"While we replenished some of the headwater soil moisture, we didn't actually replenish our reservoirs — and that's, of course, where we get our water supply," he said, pointing out that water levels likely won't improve in many Utah basins until next spring when the 2022 water year's snowpack melts.

"Typically, in a really good year, you'd have runoff through the month of June well into July," he added. "This year, we're already seeing it tailing off. For some locations it's already been quite awhile since it stopped or it's only been a trickle. In other locations, they're still getting benefit from the snow but it's not much at this point."

Contributing: Jed Boal, KSL TV

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