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The pain of the West-wide drought in 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — Like a sinister specter that won't vanish, drought was already writing the playbook for water supplies in Utah and the rest of the West as early as fall of 2020.

The year 2021 may have been months ahead, but extremely dry conditions during those last few months of 2020 amplified the reality of what was to come: drought, and a nasty one.

Looking back, water supply managers who had their fingers and toes crossed hoping for a different outcome via a wet spring realized their hopes were not to be.

By March, Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency, putting out the plea for all water users to cut back and cut back severely. Nearly all of Utah, about 90%, was already classified in extreme drought at that time.

By June, he asked residents of all dominations to pray for relief from the drought, sparking national headlines and stoking some criticism.

The state Division of Water Resources, in conjunction with the governor and other state agencies, also launched an aggressive campaign challenging residents to take pride in yellowed and dried-out lawns and expanded efforts to help residents replace water-guzzling curbside turf with other, less consumptive vegetation.

A sign in Emmalee Nelson Thompson’s Magna yard explains her decision not to water her lawn on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

In addition, Cox announced ambitious plans to make metering secondary water a standard for irrigators, especially given that 60% of Utah's municipal and industrial consumption is for outdoor use.

A drought poll commissioned by the Deseret News last summer showed the majority of Utah residents on board with state initiatives, with strong support by residents for financial incentives to be water wise and support of penalties for water users who ignore restrictions, such as prohibitions on daytime sprinklers operating under the heat of the sun.

With agricultural use consuming the bulk of Utah's overall water supply, Cox also turned his attention to ways farmers could be more efficient in their water use through better technology and the need to replace earthen ditches with cement lining to curtail leaks.

While farmers and ranchers are often in the harsh glare of scrutiny for water use, the governor defended the state's ability to provide food and fiber for residents and called on everyone to do their part to conserve. Farmers, he noted at an event this summer, experienced water cuts this year by as much as 75%.

The West-wide drought and conditions in the Great Plains did not escape the attention of federal lawmakers or the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that operates dams in 17 states, including Glen Canyon at Lake Powell and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead.

For the first time in the history of the Colorado River Basin water sharing agreement, the bureau announced mandatory water delivery reductions to lower basin states such as Nevada and Arizona due to dwindling lake levels.

The protracted drought had Utah leaders revisiting a list of 300 potential sites for new dams to capture runoff and led to a congressional webinar in which one lawmaker lamented that the West had fallen behind when it comes to water storage.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., bemoaned the lack of foresight — foresight he said was demonstrated by generations before — to construct new dams and water delivery systems to keep pace with weather conditions.

Cox echoed that concern at a media event staged at the shrinking Great Salt Lake where he unveiled his budget proposal that includes $500 million in one-time money aimed at water infrastructure and conservation.

"We think it's crazy that we're growing as a country and that we're not investing in additional water storage," Cox told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards ahead of his budget unveiling. "It's an abomination."

The Great Salt Lake reached historic all-time low levels this summer, giving rise to growing concerns about the lake's support of industry, its ecosystem serving as a stop for millions of birds and the exposed lake dust leading to increased air pollution.

Sprinklers water a lawn in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 7, 2021. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Insufferably high temperatures in the summer led to two heat-related deaths in Utah and spurred warnings about the effect of urban heat islands in areas like Salt Lake City.

July broke or tied heat records in the state and already dry lawns turned more brown.

While one might debate the power of prayer, the monsoonal season that failed to materialize last year turned on the thunderstorms for Utah in the summer of 2021, delivering much needed moisture to lessen the pressure on irrigators. Flash floods clobbered central and southern Utah and in northern Utah, emergency agencies and the National Weather Service warned of heavy rains and potential flooding.

By November, the weather delivered more bad news for Utah and other states in the West.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, November was the second-driest on record for the West and Southwest regions and in Utah, Nevada and Colorado, the month logged the second warmest minimum average temperature on record.

The biggest snowstorm of the season (so far) swept through northern Utah in mid-December, providing much needed snow in the mountains, prompting school closures and snarling nasty commutes.

Freezing temperatures are keeping that snow on the ground, which is good for the soil, but weather watchers said many more storms like mid-December's pattern are needed.

A recent report by the U.S. Drought Monitor noted that the majority of Utah continues to linger in severe or extreme drought.

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