Utah's drought is no longer 'exceptional' but will be key focus at upcoming legislative session

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Leah Hogsten, Pool)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Storms last week improved Utah's drought situation in one major area but it still exists and Gov. Spencer Cox said the drought will be an important talking point in the upcoming legislative session.

"We're very excited by this big snowstorm and we need so much more of those — we got more snow in the forecast," the governor said, during his weekly press briefing Thursday.

Utah's drought is no longer 'exceptional' but still 'extreme'

The U.S. Drought Monitor published a report earlier in the day that offered both good and bad news for Utah's drought.

The level of "exceptional" drought — considered the driest possible conditions — dropped from 9.69% of the state to 0.07% this week, according to the weekly report. It's a major improvement considering close to 70% of the state was listed in the worst drought category at one point this year and one-fifth of the state remained in that category just three months ago.

The latest report comes from data collected Tuesday and doesn't include storms that passed through the state later in the day.

David Simeral, with the Western Regional Climate Center, wrote in the report that snowstorms helped snowpack levels across the entire region, not just Utah. It's also a reversal of November trends across the region, which was Utah's second warmest and ninth driest November since 1895, according to National Centers for Environmental Information data.

State officials offered more good news, as well. The Utah Department of Natural Resources reports that Utah's soil moisture levels are 7.6% above the median for this time of year, which is considered "critical" as winter snowpack continues to accumulate.

"That means when the snow we get melts, it will go straight to the reservoirs, which didn't happen last year," Cox said.

Utah's reservoirs are also at about half-full, which is more than the less than 40% forecast earlier this year. The governor said the reason it's at 50% is that Utahns "changed their behavior" and conserved "billions and billions of gallons" water compared to previous years.

The bad news? There's plenty of more snow needed to fix current and long-term drought conditions.

While the level of "exceptional" drought has nearly been wiped off the Utah map, the entire state is still listed in a drought. About 79% of the state is at least in "extreme" drought status and over 99% of the state is still within the "severe" drought category.

Utah isn't alone in this. Take California for example, where over one-fourth of the state is considered in "exceptional" drought this week and about 80% is in "extreme" drought.

"Despite the beneficial nature of this week's storm event, significant precipitation deficits (ranging from 4 to 20-plus inches) still exist across California and the state's largest reservoirs are still at critically low levels, with Lake Shasta currently at 46% of the historical average (25% of capacity) and Lake Oroville at 62% of average (31% of capacity)," Simeral wrote.

Utah's snowpack also remains at about 75% of normal — even after Tuesday's storm.

"We still have a long way to go and need many snowstorms to reach an average, or preferably above-average, snowpack," said Brian Steed, the executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, in a statement.

The drought goes to Capitol

All of this is why Cox said the drought will still be a major topic in the next legislative session, which begins on Jan. 18, 2022. This was to be expected, as his proposed budget, released last week, includes $520 million in one-time investments for water conservation, preservation and infrastructure.

A large chunk of it, about $200 million, would go to secondary water metering, which offers better insight into exactly how much water Utahns are using.

Another $71 million would go toward projects that help preserve and rehabilitate the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake. He even unveiled the budget standing a few hundred feet from where the Great Salt Lake's shore should be. The proposal includes $50 million for agricultural "optimization," $8 million for improvements to watersheds and $1.5 million to incentivize Utahns to replace turfgrass.

Cox on Thursday offered more insight into what's in the works for next year's session, including bills that would target "the unnecessary grass in our state." The governor said one bill will specifically prohibit municipalities from "mandating grass" and make it easier for Utahns to have water-wise landscapes.

"We waste so much water in this state on grass that never gets used for anything other than just being ornamental — in park strips and others," Cox said.

Other bills will target ways for farmers to use less water, which he said will free up water resources for other uses.

"This package that we are proposing this year will be, by far, the most significant advancement we've made in water conservation," the governor added. "That's what we're doing to prepare for next year."

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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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