Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Brian Steed has a new title in Utah.
As the go-to guy for all things drought, he said he is often referred to as "Dr. Doom."
"This drought is a wake-up call that we need to do more, and we need to do it quicker," said Steed, who serves as the director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Utah's drought conditions have escalated to a dire nature due to an extremely dry fall last year, a snowpack that was largely sucked up by parched soils and an ugly stream runoff this spring.
Steed, as well as others in the state's water universe, started sounding the alarm before a blistering summer even started. By March 17, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued an emergency drought declaration.
The message: Conserve water ... conserve even more water ... and keep conserving.
Did Utah residents, businesses and institutions heed the call?
State water officials say yes, but more needs to be done.
As an example, the state's four largest water providers reported significant water savings over this summer, earning high marks, but quantifying water savings in other areas of the state becomes trickier, especially in smaller systems.
"Many Utahns across all sectors have heeded the call to conserve, but we need to do more. We live in one of the driest states in the nation, and water is our most critical resource," said Kim Wells, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
"As a state, we are conserving more, but we still have much work to do. In wet years, people aren't as vigilant and conservation isn't top of mind. This extreme drought has highlighted the need for all Utahns to make long-term water saving changes."
Thirsty, dried up Utah and our future
Steed said this unprecedented drought should be used to reshape water policy in Utah and become a top priority for lawmakers.
Here's what it could look like.
More reservoirs, more pipelines, and a statewide initiative to reward residents and businesses to tear out turf in a program popularly known as Flip Your Strip. Under this scenario, people are paid on a per-square-foot basis to replace turf with water-wise plants.
Another big lift is to install secondary water meters throughout Utah so consumers are aware of how much water they are putting on landscapes.
Steed said the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which serves some northern Utah counties, has been especially aggressive in this arena and an early pioneer of the water-saving effort.
Over time, the district has seen a 23% decrease in consumption where metering is in place, saving 50,000 acre-feet of water per year.
"That is the equivalent of an East Canyon reservoir," he said.
Utah lawmakers, in fact, appropriated $280 million in May for water infrastructure, including $100 million to boost conservation efforts. Of that, $50 million is being spent to help systems convert to metering secondary water, but — given the hundreds of systems in the state — it is a mere drop in the bucket.
Kim Shelley, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, recently told a committee of lawmakers that cost may be high, but the needs are great.
"The need is estimated at $1.2 billion — that's billion with a 'B' — in drinking water, wastewater and stormwater. That's a big number. I don't think it should deter us from taking action."
Steed said everyone's eyes are on what kind of snowpack the coming months will bring, especially with water storage at reservoirs in dreadful shape and managers being forced to dip into emergency reserves.
But in the midst of "Dr. Doom's" gloom and all the finger-crossing, there are examples where significant, even extraordinary, water savings were achieved during this protracted and unrivaled drought in Utah. They include:
- Layton city's culinary water consumption in August 2020 was 752 million gallons. In August of this year, it sat at 485 million gallons. Layton spokesman Steve Garside said August is typically the city's highest water consumption month all year. "We have been pleasantly surprised and obviously pleased with the results."
- The conversion to a "smart" irrigation controller system by the University of Utah a couple of years ago has led to a sustained reduction in water consumption at the campus of 20%.
- Salt Lake City's water delivery has been shaved by 20% compared to the last three years' average.
- The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District has also seen a drop in water consumption this summer of 20% and interest in its Flip Your Strip program has shot up by 194% over last year. Landscape consultation is up 112% over last year.
Both Weber Basin serving northern Utah and Central Utah Water Conservancy District instituted Flip Your Strip programs this summer.
Rick Malloy, water conservation manager for the Central Utah district, said its board approved $500,000 for agriculture efficiency projects and another $500,000 for Flip Your Strip in response to the drought.
Is water a new religion?
Springville residents Pat and Trina Bradford say they are excited about the Flip Your Strip program and the fact it is available where they live as a result of Central Utah's budget allocations.
They recently visited the conservation garden in West Jordan at the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District to get some ideas.
"This is really great timing because this has been something I have been wanting to do and it has given me a nudge to move forward," Trina Bradford said. "Going to the garden definitely provided some insight into plants I already know and love, as well as some new plants."
Linda Townes Cook, Jordan Valley's public information manager, said this year's drought has galvanized people into a new way of thinking.
Four of its member cities adopted water efficiency standards that are ordinances "on steroids" and there has been monumental interest in Flip Your Strip. Those park strips covered in turf are among the worst water wasters, with most of the finite resource flowing down a gutter.
"There is a difference between drought response and drought resiliency. One is a knee-jerk reaction and the other is planning for the future because drought has become more common," she said. "Utah has been waiting for this moment."
A really bad drought's impacts
Cook recalled a trip to California by local water officials years back. States like Nevada, California and Arizona have been more aggressive in changing out landscapes to be increasingly water wise.
In Utah, there has been more resistance and, in some areas, regulations have lagged or are not present altogether.
"They told us if you want to get people's attention, what we needed was a really good drought," she said. "That would change opinion and that is happening because where some cities have been hesitant, there has been this catalyst of pressure."
In the Davis County city of Syracuse, leaders there have taken a unique approach.
Beyond tearing out their turf at city hall, the Syracuse public works department — when it has time — will donate its labor to excavate park strips for willing residents.
The city has done a couple of dozen projects, with more than 200 households on the waitlist.
These water saving success stories are important in Utah, which is the second most arid state in the nation. Outdoor water use makes up 60% of municipal and industrial water consumption and, overall, the agricultural sector accounts for about 75% of the state's water use.
In the last several years, Utah has invested $7.3 million to boost water efficiency on Utah's farms and ranches.
Dying, drying reservoirs in Utah
Steed added, too, that even with these savings and even though some ranchers and farmers drastically reduced production this year — cut off from water as early as July — water supply in Utah remains critically short.
As of Sept. 13, the Sevier River Basin's Gunnison reservoir was dry. Yuba sat at 9% of capacity. In northern Utah, Echo has shriveled up to just 12% of capacity and Pineview was 21% full.
The good news in all of this is that the drought upended complacency for many.
Executives with Stratton & Brätt, the longest serving privately held landscaping company in Utah — notable projects include Red Butte Gardens and Thanksgiving Point — say they have seen a dramatic uptick in the desire for water-wise landscaping, especially in the industrial space.
At an 80-acre Amazon project in American Fork, for example, it included 90% xeriscaping in contrast to what it would have been a decade ago with 40% turf.
Perry Brätt, co-founder of the company, said in-migration to the state from places such as California — coupled with growing awareness over the drought — are stoking change.
"There's been this cultural shift, not only by individuals but by their neighbors. They are starting to monitor their neighbors."
The company works closely with industry, institutions and residents to institute water saving measures.
Fix your drip
In particular, with homeowners associations or HOAs, Brätt said there are strategic circumstances where a great deal of water savings can be achieved.
He pointed to one example of an association that had 25 outdoor connections that were losing water fast. It was 190 gallons of water per hour. Every day. Even in the fall.
Three of those connections were responsible for that water loss and were fixed at a cost of $600 per connection.
Brätt said drought underscores the importance of fixing those leaks, installing more efficient systems and has a positive byproduct — saving money.
The main supplier of their irrigation components, he added, told them it had never seen such a demand for water efficiency products as it had this summer.
Brätt said he's been in the landscaping business for 46 years in Utah and the West, experiencing a closeup look at conditions.
In those 46 years, there have been seven years where the company has been able to continue to do effective landscaping in January — when the ground should be covered in snow or the temperatures miserably cold.
"Six of those seven years have been in the last six years," he said. "We've been able to landscape through the winter. We don't have to stop."