Planning for the 35 Year Drought

In mid April, water managers from all 29 of Utah’s counties met in Salt Lake City with climate and biology researchers, engineers, agronomists, and sociologists from Utah State University and the University of Utah to talk about water in Utah today and in the future.  They tackled everything from mega-droughts to 45 possible reservoir sites in northern Utah alone.

I had the opportunity to interview USU climate center’s Dr. Larry Hipps and Dr. Robert Kjelgren (full audio, here) the day after the event.  Both were a part of recent notable research published on Utah’s water history going back 1200 years using Juniper Tree ring data which was presented to water managers.  What they found was that the 20th century had been a particularly wet century, overall, when compared to the previous 11.  And the average period of drought in Utah in 12 centuries? Forget the 7-year-drought colloquialisms, and make it 35-40 years.  Understandably, the hypothetical “could Utah withstand 35 drought years” question, the Doctors told me, briefly overshadowed the more immediate “how are we going to get to 2050” question.  But the answer to both might be the same.

At the heart of the discussion was not hypothetical, but an undeniable reality: Utah water is a resource that will become an increasing concern as populations nearly double in the next few decades, with or without drought (Dr. Hipps stressed it would probably be with).  Climate change and population, they said, are both factors in water scarcity with a tendency to contribute exponentially as both are effected by and alter the existing environment simultaneously.  With a goal of 25% reduction in consumption, Dr. Kjelgren said, Utah would still need an additional 500-600 million cubic meters of ‘new’ water to meet 2050 demand expectations, unless we make more drastic changes than cutting back on watering our lawns.  “And that’s where it gets tough,” he said.

To really understand Utah’s immediate and future water concerns, you have to look at the example California provides.  Something, both researchers said, everyone is getting wrong.  What they explained reminded me of something I’d read about California a few days before the interview:

I find those manicured desert lawns as offensive as the next guy, particularly when native succulent landscaping is so much more aesthetically interesting. And photographing the McMansions in their fake bubble of green may be an effective way to draw attention to the state’s plight. But the hard truth is the greenery of Palm Springs and Orange County is not really the problem. The single most important statistic in understanding the current crisis is this: 80% of California’s surface water supports agriculture, largely the farms and ranches of the Central Valley. Compared to that massive flow, the residential abuses are almost an afterthought. If every single human being living south of Los Angeles packed up and moved to rainy Oregon, it wouldn’t improve California’s water situation as much as a mere 10% decrease in the water used by the Central Valley crops and livestock.

80% of surface water is going toward livestock and agriculture in California.  Put it another way, there is plenty of water for Californians, and projected population growth.  There just isn’t enough for Californians and the crops, unless you do more than get folks to only water their lawns once a week.

How does that relate to Utah and the possibility of prolonged drought, or even mild drought with expected population growth challenges? Well, 70% of Utah’s surface water goes to agriculture.  We’re not that far away from California, in that respect.

This isn’t to say California Governor Brown’s harsh water restrictions aren’t a good idea.  This isn’t to say Governor Herbert’s water conservation campaigns aren’t a good idea.  Every bit helps, and, well, why waste any, right?  But all of this is to say that cutting back on, or cutting out entirely watering our lawns Cache Valley, or washing the mini-vans less in Utah County, or cutting back on the RV showers down there in St. George ( some bluetooth-equipped showerhead systems can drastically reduce the use of water by monitoring it and controlling it when it gets excessive) or building a reservoir on every unsuspecting water-way we can drive a backhoe to… all of that won’t be enough.

Unless we find a way to make agriculture less consumptive, Utah’s future could look a lot like California today.

But it’s not all gloom and doom.  Both Dr. Hipps and Dr. Kjelgren feel the ongoing discussions in Utah are productive, and that Utah has the opportunity to avoid what California didn’t.  I was directed to an article by USU Climate Center Assistant Professor Simon Wang, who writes:

The Bureau of Reclamation has already announced that water supply of the mighty Colorado River will no longer meet its current water demand. To mitigate for foreseeable water shortage, Utah has implemented statewide water conservation programs aiming for a 25% reduction by 2050. However, if future population projections are accurate, an additional 540 million cubic meters (approximately 440,000 acre-feet) will still be required over and above conservation to meet anticipated demand. Meeting future demands under variable climate conditions further challenge water suppliers to provide for agricultural and urban water users. This is a delicate problem requiring all sides of expertise, from climate science to political science, from hydrological engineering to water managing. It is a challenge, but also an opportunity; an opportunity to open dialogues and open minds.

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