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Q&A with BYU geography professor addresses drought conditions in Utah, offers water conservation tips

Record-breaking temperatures are part of the problem, but the less-noticeable warming trend over months and years is the bigger concern.

Drought Q&A
BYU professor Matt Bekker says solving Utah's water shortage won't be accomplished by water projects alone. Local conservation by homeowners, agriculture, and businesses, and careful management and better legislation by cities, counties, and state will be required.

If you’ve stepped outside into the Utah summer weather anytime throughout the past few weeks you’ve probably noticed that it’s hot. Very hot. In fact, according to BYU geography professor Matt Bekker, Utah’s broken high-temperature records multiple times in April and June.

In this Q&A, Bekker discusses current Utah drought conditions, changes in Utah’s climate, and how we can all work together to conserve water to be better prepared for the future.

Q: How can Utahns reduce their water consumption this summer?

A: The Utah Division of Water Resources has some helpful watering guidelines. Here are a few things to consider:

  • This time of year you would normally want to water about three times per week, for 20 minutes with pop-up sprinkler heads or 30 minutes with impact/rotor sprinklers. At the Geography Department’s weather station, we are measuring about 1/3” of evaporation per day, so that’s how much water you’d need to maintain a positive balance. However, the Utah Division of Water Resources just recommended that we cut back to two times per week given the exceptional drought conditions. It’s important to know that grass will go dormant and turn yellow, but not die, with a little less water.
  • Measure the amount of water your sprinklers are producing by placing small, straight-sided containers around your yard, then adjust your watering accordingly.
  • Water early in the morning or late in the evening so you don’t lose all the water to evaporation.
  • Plant drought-resistant vegetation instead of the commonly used Kentucky bluegrass. Water conservancies throughout the state have nice demonstration gardens with many alternative types of grass and other plants.
  • Make sure sprinkler heads are working properly and spraying the plants instead of concrete.
  • Fix leaky faucets and take short showers instead of baths.
  • Grow your own food. Buy locally and eat less beef, which has a huge water footprint.

Q: Do you expect to see more record-setting temperatures this summer?

A: Yes, in fact, we’ve already picked up where we left off last fall. We broke high-temperature records April 2-4 and June 3-5. Days like these certainly contribute to the water problem through evaporation, but regardless of broken daily records, the less-noticeable warming trend over months and years is the biggest problem. Most of the last 20 years have been drought years.

Q: How can Utah be better prepared for drought in the future? We’ve seen some lawmakers saying we simply need more water infrastructure. Is it as simple as that?

A: More water projects alone will not solve the problem. We need everybody to do their part up and down the line. Local conservation by homeowners, agriculture, and businesses, and careful management and better legislation by cities, counties, and the state. We need to get away from the “first in line, first in right” idea and start looking at the bigger picture. Researchers at BYU are developing smart-watering systems that sense soil moisture and adjust automatically – we need to support those types of efforts.

We need to support legislation at all levels that will get at the root of the problem. Agriculture is still our biggest water user. Replacing some water-demanding crops that provide little economic benefit to the state with more drought-resistant plants would help. Even better, using farmland for solar farms would use less water, pay the farmers, and reduce government subsidies.

Q: Was the snow/water equivalent in the snowpack below average this past winter?

A: It was quite dry. For most of the “water year,” which runs from October through September, our snowpack for most Utah watersheds was stuck around 60-70% of normal. It got as high as 80% in February and early March, but the rest of the winter was unimpressive. And the spring has not helped. April and May are normally some of our wettest months, but we got only 1.7” of water over those two months this year, and less than half an inch last year. For comparison, we had 5” of water over the same time period in 2019, a more normal water year.

Q: Will the drought get so bad this summer that Utahns won’t have water in their homes?

A: The vast majority of water that we use is outdoors – agriculture and lawns – so we’ve got a long way to go before we don’t have water in the sink. But again, that’s going to be worse for some communities lower on the water rights hierarchy.

Q: How severe will this wildfire season be?

A: It’s already well underway in Utah and other parts of the west and started earlier than normal. Expect fire restrictions in the mountains. On that subject, it is not just because we have a lot of dead trees. The living trees, which still have all of their leaves or needles on them, produce the biggest and hottest fires. Under extremely hot and dry conditions like we’re currently experiencing, the leaves and needles dry out and the fire spreads easily through the canopy.

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