'Lawn' is becoming a 'four-letter word' amid Utah's dire drought

Drought in Utah is causing low water levels at East Canyon Reservoir near Morgan on Wednesday, June 16, 2021.

Drought in Utah is causing low water levels at East Canyon Reservoir near Morgan on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — Raising water rates on big water users. Paying Utahns to rip out their lawns. Increased xeriscaping.

These conservation efforts are already happening or expected to happen in the near future in southern Utah — and some Wasatch Front cities have already adopted ordinances to limit lawns in new developments.

That's what water district officials told Utah lawmakers on the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee on Wednesday as they painted a dire picture of the situation the drought that's gripping the West has put the state of Utah in.

The discussion came amid a sweltering heat wave that set records across the Wasatch Front. In Salt Lake City, a temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit tied the highest temperature ever recorded in any month in the last 147 years of record keeping. The June scorcher beat July record highs that have only happened twice before: in July 2002 and July 1960, according to the National Weather Service Salt Lake City.

Drought in Utah is causing low water levels at East
Canyon Reservoir near Morgan on Wednesday, June 16,
2021.
Drought in Utah is causing low water levels at East Canyon Reservoir near Morgan on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"We're breaking all the wrong records right now," said Glen Merrill, hydrologist and meteorologist with the National Weather Service of Salt Lake City.

With snowpacks that are now nonexistent so early in the season, already decreasing reservoir levels, and record-breaking soil content lows, water district managers essentially had no good news for Utah lawmakers.

In fact, they said the drought is so dire, it's likely going to take years for the state to recover — with the luck of a healthy winter.

"If we're looking for ways to break out of this drought, it's not going to come from a monsoon," Merrill said. "To break out of this drought, we're going to need not only one banner year, but likely more than that during our cool season."

Utah lawmakers on the committee mostly listened and didn't take any actions as water district managers explained the disconcerting states of their reservoirs as well as their ongoing and future efforts to conserve water.

Secondary water metering

"We've never seen a first-year onset of drought hit us this hard in the history of (the Ogden and Weber river) systems," said Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

The storage of the Weber and Ogden River drainage usually totals about 220,000 acre feet. Recently, that's down to 7,000, Flint said, "just to give you an idea of the severity."

"I get the question all the time, 'How is it we can be in this severe of a drought this early?' It's a combination of record-breaking soil moisture content, record-breaking lack of precipitation throughout the last 16 months," Flint said. "Never seen anything like it in the history of recorded hydrology in the areas of those rivers. And so, here we are with that conundrum."

With two years of water storage, Flint said the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District "is going to make it through this year" and "with a lot of help" from agricultural and outdoor conservation programs, "we already have next year's drinking water supply in the bank."

"So the sky's not falling completely, but there is a large and wide and detailed call to what we need to do on the conservation side," he said.

So far, over 12,000 secondary meters have been installed in Davis and Weber county residences "so that we may start now to see how folks react to that and what kind of water savings we can experience from that," Flint said, explaining that his district has been sending monthly mailers to residences to show Utahns their water usage, and also gives them access to an online portal to monitor their water usage.

"An informed water user is a better water user," Flint said, "to the tune of about 20% to 30% savings right out of the gate."

A man walks near a hillside of dry grass in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, during a drought.
A man walks near a hillside of dry grass in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, during a drought. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Secondary water metering isn't cheap, Flint said, but "it's something that we need to do and we will continue to do." The Weber Basin district expects to install secondary water meters on all 22,000 water accounts in the next four years, citing "incredible amounts of data" that shows those water meters do help to conserve water.

In the meantime, water districts plan to ramp up their messaging to residents stressing to only water their lawns a maximum of two times a week, Flint said.

"We're hopeful that the citizens will come around and recognize the severity of this drought and be OK with some brown lawns out there," Flint said. "It's going to be all right. They'll be fine next spring."

As for farming, Flint said his district has already implemented cutbacks — to the tune of 30% for agricultural water users.

The situation is even more dire out of the Colorado River, Flint said.

"There's less water on the Colorado River, frankly, than there is in Utah right now," he said. "So, yeah, that's a challenge. A very, very big challenge. Lake Powell will be lower this summer than it's ever been. Lake Mead is lower today than it's ever been. And so there are folks that are getting very very nervous about how the Colorado River system will work."

Ordinances limiting future lawns

As for Salt Lake County, Bart Forsyth, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District said Deer Creek and Provo River systems that serve over 750,000 water customers are already seeing "stress," though in general "we are in pretty good shape this year."

"We do not see any cutbacks with respect to our water supply for our member agencies this year," Forsyth said, though he added, "I have to set my sights on next year."

However, Forsyth said his agency is focusing on conservation this year. On top of asking residents to water no more than twice a week, he said "we ought to delay new landscapes from going in during the heat of the summer."

"In the future, we're going to have to be looking at differences in the way we landscape," Forsyth said, noting that his district is working with cities to enact ordinances to limit new landscaping to a maximum of 35% of turf grass and 20% for commercial landscaping. He congratulated Herriman, South Jordan and West Jordan for adopting ordinances over the last six months to require all new development to be "water wise." The cities of Bluffdale and Draper, he said, are also on track to pass similar ordinances.

Related:

Payments to 'rip out' lawns

Efforts have been more aggressive in southern Utah. Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said the district implemented a surcharge for the top 25% of the district's water users.

"We were just going to raise their water rates $1 per 1,000 gallons, and the interesting feedback I've received is, 'That's not enough, we need to be more aggressive,'" Renstrom said. "And so we'll more than likely really go after those high-end water users and try to help them to lower that."

There's also seems to be somewhat of a culture shift happening in the St. George area, Renstrom said.

"The word 'lawn' down here is starting to become a four-letter word," he said. "People are starting to rip out their landscaping. New construction that's going on, they're simply not installing it. And so it's good to see that measure."

Over the next few months, Renstrom said it's likely his district will start paying Washington County residents "to rip out their lawn."

"We're most likely going to start a lawn rebate program where we just pay people to rip out lawn," he said.

Washington County can probably "get through one more year for drinking water, but if I have another year like this, it would be dire." Agriculture users fed by the Santa Clara River and Gunlock Reservoir are on track to only get 30% of their allocation this year, Renstrom said.

"It's such a bad situation down here," he said.

One lawmaker expressed concern about "ripping out lawns": Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding.

"What happens when a lot of people in a neighborhood tear out their lawn is the temperature starts to rise in that area," Lyman said. "I think St. George is obviously a real desert climate, it probably makes sense there, but a lot of places pulling out lawns actually exacerbates the problem and the heat and the drought."

As the meeting ended, Lyman requested a presentation about the "downside of xeriscaping and what that does to the heat and actually ends up costing more water for power and air conditioning and stuff."

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Katie McKellar

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