Cox orders another emergency drought declaration; Lake Powell to receive more water

Low water levels are pictured in Lake Powell on Dec. 18, 2021. Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday issued a state of emergency regarding the state's drought. Utah and three other states also approved a plan to send water from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell.

Low water levels are pictured in Lake Powell on Dec. 18, 2021. Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday issued a state of emergency regarding the state's drought. Utah and three other states also approved a plan to send water from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox made a public plea last summer, calling on Utahns to pray for rain as the state began to experience some of its worst drought conditions on record.

The seasonal monsoon did come back in late July and August, and snow collection levels may end up closer to average thanks to a pair of April storms; however, he said Thursday that prayers aren't enough to fix the projected drought situation as the irrigation season begins.

It's why Cox issued a state of emergency regarding the state's drought, effective immediately.

"We're certainly not relying solely on deity to solve our problems," the governor said, speaking at his monthly press briefing.

The order issued Thursday mirrors one issued last year. It opens the process for communities, farmers and anyone else affected by the drought to request government resources.

At the Utah drought's height last year, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed more than two-thirds of the state in "exceptional" drought status — the worst recorded in the monitor's history. Utah has also been in drought status for eight of the last 10 years, as noted by the declaration.

A study published earlier this year noted that the West's two-decade "megadrought" is also the worst in 1,200 years.

"Right now, the entire West is stuck in this dry cycle," Cox said. "The only thing that changes that is our ability to utilize the snowpack and increase water storage in the state."

This year's water year, which began on Oct. 1, got off to a promising start. The statewide snowpack levels were above 125% entering January; however, it hit a snag at the beginning of the calendar year. The first quarter of the year was the fourth-driest on record, according to National Centers for Environmental Information data.

Utah's reservoirs are currently 59% of capacity statewide, while the state's snowpack levels are now 70% of normal for this point in the year. The U.S. Drought Monitor issued an update to Utah's drought situation earlier Thursday, listing 44% of the state in an extreme drought, while most of the rest of the state is in severe drought status.

"Obviously, reservoir storage is what gets us through the dry years and it's dependent on snowpack and runoff. But extended drought and last year's dry conditions have really drained our reservoirs," Cox said.

This map, published by the U.S. Drought Monitor Thursday, shows current drought conditions across Utah. Over 40% is listed in extreme drought conditions.
This map, published by the U.S. Drought Monitor Thursday, shows current drought conditions across Utah. Over 40% is listed in extreme drought conditions. (Photo: U.S. Drought Monitor)

While April has been productive with a storm last week and there's another "amazing" storm arriving Friday, Cox said the storms aren't enough to get the state out of the drought status, which is why the state of emergency is important.

The order also opens up state funds to help residents if reservoir levels drop low enough to impact drinking water supplies, in addition to helping out farmers who may suffer from less water.

Cox mentioned Thursday that bills passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year will help ease the impact of the drought this summer. Any water restrictions this summer will be taken on a district-by-district basis, so some Utah residents may see restrictions this summer while others won't.

The governor also called on residents, businesses, institutions and farmers across Utah to find ways to cut back water consumption this year. He's optimistic that people will respond because billions of gallons of water were saved last year when people and government agencies reduced their consumption.

"Honestly, we far passed and exceeded our highest expectations last year for what Utahns will be willing to do and their ability to conserve," he said. "There were some eye-popping conservation numbers and our water managers were all shocked with how well Utahns did last year, so we're hoping for a repeat performance this year."

Flaming Gorge water to move to Lake Powell

Lake Powell in southeast Utah is one of the reservoirs hardest hit by the megadrought. The order specifically notes that the federal government recently declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time. The nation's second-largest reservoir is now below a quarter full of its potential capacity.

As Cox spoke about the drought, the Colorado River Authority of Utah sent out a statement regarding a plan to move water from Flaming Gorge in the state's northeast corner to help Lake Powell. Flaming Gorge, at about 80% full, is one of the large West reservoirs not as heavily impacted by the drought so far.

Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming all signed off on a plan that will send 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Dam to travel south into Glen Canyon Dam beginning May 1. The two reservoirs are connected through the Green River, which flows into the Colorado River which flows into Lake Powell.

The move was made a week after the Department of Interior proposed a 480,000 acre-feet reduction in water released from Lake Powell this year, meaning more water will remain in the reservoir this year. The agreement was made possible by the Drought Response Operation Agreement that Congress passed in 2019, according to the Colorado River Authority of Utah.

"The water level at Lake Powell has dropped much more rapidly than our models anticipated and has made it necessary for us to take expedited measures to address the situation," said Gene Shawcroft, the authority's chairman and the state's river commissioner, in a statement. "Fortunately, our sister states in the upper Colorado River basin and the Bureau of Reclamation have recognized the severity of the situation and we were able to form a plan for the next 12-month period that is in everyone's best interest."

The coordinated release is projected to wrap up on April 30, 2023; Flaming Gorge's total water level is expected to drop by 15 feet over the course of the next year just from the plan. Additional releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado and Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico are also possible as a part of the agreement.

The move buys Lake Powell some time, so the Glen Canyon Dam infrastructure continues, ensuring that hydroelectric power can function and there's still enough water access for Page, Arizona, and the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.

"We recognize the concern this may cause people who love to spend time at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and that it won't fully solve the recreation concerns for those who use Lake Powell," Shawcroft added. "Ideally, we'd have enough water to fill all our reservoirs, but that's not the hand Mother Nature has dealt us."

Correction: A previous version incorrectly said the Department of Interior planned to reduce 480,000 acre-feet from flowing into Lake Powell, but the plan calls for the reduction of water flowing out of the reservoir.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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