How bad is the Utah drought? Water manager immersed in emergency supply


Utah’s crops are suffering or fields are fallow, cattle are sold as ranchers face rangeland losses, and water managers are dipping into emergency supplies as this extreme drought trend loosens its grip on the West. denies.

“We are no longer pulling the stored water from this year’s runoff. Instead, we are dependent on the water stored in our reservoirs during the past years. We are drawing water from our emergency savings,” said Brian Stead, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “No one knows how long this drought will last, so it is important that we avoid using up our stored water too quickly. Failing to save water now can lead to more difficult situations later.

According to information released by the department on Friday, as a result of the drought, farmers and cattle ranchers are seeing between 70% and 75% reduction in water, reducing the production yields of the state’s agriculture industry and threatening local food security. is.

And it’s not just farmers. The effects of the drought threaten the Great Salt Lake ecosystem as well as the boaters who hope to enjoy Utah’s reservoirs.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources stressed critically:

  • Reservoir storage across the state has been steadily declining and is now at an average of 58% (down from 59% last week). Twenty-six of Utah’s 42 largest reservoirs hold less than 55% of the available capacity. No additional reservoir dropped below that limit in the past week.
  • Statewide reservoir levels are now lower in October than at the end of last year’s irrigation season (now 58 percent compared to 61 percent in October). There are three months left in the irrigation season when water use is traditionally at its peak.
  • Deer Creek, Jordanell, Pineview, Rockport, Sand Hollow, Strawberry and Willard Bay are all highly visible reservoirs with storage levels below where they were at the end of the 2020 irrigation season.

The agency said low reservoir levels were rising due to statewide flows, which continued to decline, with 77 of the 98 measured streams flowing below normal. This is an increase of 12 from the previous week.

Great Salt Lake in crisis?

Water watchers are also keeping a close watch on the Great Salt Lake, which is expected to decrease further in the coming days. When that happens, it will reach a historic low not seen in more than 50 years — 1963.

Reducing that level is worrying for the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

Utah Geological Survey scientists are concerned about the long-term effects of microbialites, which are underwater rock-like rock mounds created by millions of microbes. These structures and their microbial mats form the basis of the entire ecosystem, serving as the primary food source for brine shrimp and brine flies.

“We tend to think of these formations as living rocks,” said Michael Vanden Berg, the survey’s energy and minerals program manager.

“They accumulate as a result of microbial communities trapping and binding sediment and/or triggering calcium carbonate minerals to precipitate from the water column. The Great Salt Lake population is one of the largest accumulations of modern microbes in the world. is,” he said.

Similar to plants, microorganisms use photosynthesis to grow and bring the sun’s energy into the lake.

“Our study shows that the entire lake system, including 10 million migratory birds, depends on microorganisms,” said Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. “Without these important structures, the impacts of the food chain would be amplified.”

Vanden Berg said that previous studies have indicated that it only takes a short time for microbial mats to die – perhaps a few weeks.

“It takes many years for higher levels of the lake to recover before the microbial mats can recover,” he said. “Exposure to this decline can have lasting, unpredictable consequences for microbial populations in the years leading up to it, even if lake levels return to higher levels in subsequent years.”

The US Geological Survey said in a release Friday that it is closely monitoring those levels at its Saltair measuring station.

According to Ryan Rowland, the agency’s Utah Water Science Center data chief, “Based on current trends and historical data, we anticipate that water levels will continue to decline over the next several months.” “This information is critical to helping resource managers make informed decisions on Great Salt Lake resources. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

Sailors enjoy the water at Jordanelle State Park on Friday, July 16, 2021.  The water level is low due to drought.

Think, pray for snow this winter

Across the state, reservoir and lake levels face extreme heat and low rainfall, due to continued drought.

The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation reported additional boat ramp closures Friday as a result of shrinking reservoirs.

Both the boat ramps at Willard Bay State Park are now closed, as well as the boat ramps at Millsite State Park. The division reported a total of seven boat ramps which are closed due to water level. Six of them remain under an “consultant” designation – meaning the ramp is operating at low capacity or may be in danger of closing soon.

The division stated that low water levels pose a risk of encountering hazards and it advised boat owners to investigate Website before going out.

At Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir, the Bureau of Reclamation has launched an emergency release from the upstream Fleming Gorge Reservoir as officials worry about maintaining hydroelectricity generation from Glen Canyon Dam.

Lake Powell may hit its lowest level this month since it first began filling in the 1960s.

Utah Snow Supervisor Jordan Clayton of the Natural Resources Conservation Service said the water year so far in 2021 has been the worst, with an average of 4.1 inches of rainfall at the sites measured.

“When it comes to water supply conditions in the mountains of Utah, June was not the month we were looking for. Last month’s accumulated rainfall was only 31% of normal, making the water-year-over-year accumulation 64 % done.

Clayton’s comments were noted this week in the release of the July Climate and Water Report for Utah, in which he said the state’s reservoirs are unlikely to see substantial gains until next spring’s runoff.

“Based on current rainfall and soil moisture conditions, we really need snowpack next winter to prevent a continued decline in our reservoir storage levels. However, we can potentially reduce statewide reservoir storage to 15-20% of capacity.” The limit (or worse) could be seen by the end of next summer if the situation remains the same this year. Water managers should look into this potential outcome.”

An osprey protects its young in a nest near the dam at Jordanelle Reservoir on Friday, July 16, 2021.  The water level is low due to drought.

building reservoir resilience

Tom Bruton, assistant general manager for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, said the district’s system has declining levels of large reservoirs like the Jordanelle and Strawberry, but the system was designed for resilience.

“The Central Utah project is operating as designed; taking advantage of years of abundant water in preparation for years of severe drought, even years of severe drought. With a record-setting dry year of 2018. Beginning, through an above-average year of 2019, and the double, record-setting dry years of 2020 and 2021, Central Utah project deliveries have been maintained at contracted amounts.”

He said that the reason for this is that these large reservoirs have been constructed keeping in mind the multi-year capacity.

“The large reservoirs really take advantage of the high runoff season. We don’t lose water supply to spills. So there’s a double aspect to this – there’s a huge supply of it to take in dry years, but when we have a wet year, we have bigger storage where it can be filled. It’s the best of both worlds.”

These large reservoirs are also critical to sustaining massive population growth in Utah, which remains the fastest-growing state in the country, he said.

“Conservation measures, such as those offered at SlowtheFlow.org, buoy and enhance the water departments of Utah’s cities and special service districts,” Bruton said. “And as Utah continues to grow, the state with the majority of that growth – our children and grandchildren – needs to have a water supply available so that they can choose to live in Utah if they want to and so that other enjoyment Can take Utah if they decide so, then move here.”

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