'Yellow is the new green': Guide says most Utahns should water just twice a week

Sprinklers water a lawn in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 7, 2021. A new state watering guide says residents need to cut back to two irrigations a week for northern and central Utah.

Sprinklers water a lawn in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 7, 2021. A new state watering guide says residents need to cut back to two irrigations a week for northern and central Utah. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — As drought conditions continue to impact Utah with no relief in sight, the Utah Division of Water Resources announced Friday it is replacing its popular weekly watering guide with a new guide that mirrors an executive order issued by Gov. Spencer Cox earlier this week.

The "Extreme Drought Watering Guide" no longer informs residents of individual counties about the best times to water based on recent weather and evapotranspiration, it instructs residents to cut back to two irrigations a week for northern and central Utah, and three for southern Utah — with trees, shrubs and flowers prioritized over grass with those waterings.

One irrigation, the division states, is about 20 minutes of waters with pop-up spray heads or 40 minutes with impact rotor sprinklers. The message the first map states is residents should think of watering their lawns "to survive not thrive."

"It's about keeping your grass alive," said Kim Wells, with the Utah Division of Water Resources. "It's not going to look lush and green, but it will rebound once conditions improve, so it's really about stretching the water supply and saving every drop that we can right now."

The map essentially matches what Cox instructed Utah government buildings to do with his executive order that he signed Tuesday. During a press briefing to discuss the policy, he assured that "it's going to be OK to have a yellow lawn this year."

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson added a similar message during the state's COVID-19 press briefing Thursday, saying that "yellow is the new green" this year. She said that's because it is "more apparent than ever" this year that Utah is a desert state. With reservoir levels at 69% statewide to enter June, which is 15 percentage points below levels at the same point last year, she pointed out that it's important that Utahns only use water for "what you need" this summer.

"It's easy for people to tune out this drought message because we always seem to be 'we're in a desert, we're always dry, we always seem to experience some sort of a drought.' But this drought we are experiencing this year is extremely severe," Henderson said. "It's going to require us to communicate with you more about it."

Wells added that conservation is crucial because reservoirs account for the water, not just for lawns and plants but also for consumption. Utah State University-Extension's Center for Water-Efficient Landscaping reports that landscape irrigation accounts for half to two-thirds of yearly municipal water use.

When it comes to watering, trees, shrubs and flowers should be prioritized over grass, Wells added. That's because grass is much tougher than other plants when it comes to keeping it alive. It may not look like it as it yellows but it can survive on an inch of water a month.

The Center for Water-Efficient Landscaping provides many tips for how to best water other plants. It points out that trees and shrubs should be watered to the depth of 18 to 20 inches, and the soil type affects the amount of water needed.

"Sandy soils absorb water the fastest (about 2 inches per hour), followed by loam soils (0.75 inches per hour). Clay soils have the slowest absorption rate (0.5 inches per hour)," the center wrote. "By allowing water to penetrate deeper into the soil profile, you are encouraging deeper rooting and a more drought-tolerant plant. Frequent, light irrigation will lead to plants that have a shallow root system and that are more prone to water stress."

The center has more efficient watering tips that can be found here.

Meanwhile, Utah's water history is why the Utah Division of Water Resources launched a water "Hall of Fame or Shame" website in 2017. Wells explained that the division would receive many calls from residents frustrated with water waste, so they created a website to report possible problems. It highlights good and bad secondary water methods.

The website has experienced the most traffic it has ever had this year.

The website received 167 submissions in 2020, which is when conditions of the current drought first emerged. Division officials said that, as of Friday morning, it had received nearly 1,400 submissions since Cox referenced the site on Tuesday. Of 1,373 total submissions, 36 wanted to highlight good practices and 1,337 wanted to alert about bad ones.

"It's going to require every single one of us to take action and do our part to mitigate its terrible effects," Henderson said. "This is one of those years where we're going to have to be concerned about drought."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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