State of Emergency Due to Drought Conditions
Despite recent monsoonal storms, extreme drought conditions continue to plague the state. Utah relies most heavily on snowpack for its water – however, rain and snow both play essential roles in recovering from the drought. This much-needed rain has helped reduce wildfire risk and temporarily improve soil moisture and streamflows. The storms have not, however, pulled us out of this drought. Hopefully, steady rain and snow will continue into this winter when it will have the most significant impact on drought conditions.

With 100% of the state experiencing drought, Gov. Spencer J. Cox issued a third Executive Order due to drought conditions on June 8 further restricting water use at state facilities and also prohibiting fireworks for all state and unincorporated lands. The Governor declared a state of emergency due to drought on March 17 and issued a second Executive Order on May 3 requiring water conservation at state facilities.

What Makes This Drought Different

While we have experienced droughts in the past, the intensity and the fact that we haven’t had any recent relief have created this extreme situation. 

  • 2020 was the driest year on record and one of the hottest. This led to record dry soils.
  • Our snowpack was dismal (topping out at 81% and peaking 10 days early), and record dry soils soaked up what little runoff we received. As a result, streams statewide are flowing below normal and reservoirs never refilled.
  • A dry April was followed by an even drier May, with less than one-half-inch of precipitation accumulated in valley locations. Record summer temperatures haven’t helped. However, monsoons returned this year (noticeably absent the last two years) and have improved soil moisture and reduced system demand as people shut off their sprinklers. Rain does little to refil reservoirs. It will take an above-average snowpack to help pull the state out of drought.

Drought Updates (week of September 20)

  • Boil orders have been issued for the Rendezvous Beach campground and South Duchesne due to high levels of E. coli. In addition, a public notice has been issued to East Carbon residents due to water quality concerns caused by low reservoir levels and equipment issues.
  • Thirty-two of Utah’s largest 42 reservoirs are below 55% of available capacity, the same as last week. Overall statewide storage is 48% of capacity, slightly less than last week.
  • Of the 98 measured streams, 53 flowed below normal this week compared to 50 last week.
  • The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has launched an Emergency Disaster Relief Loan Program; this program provides loans of up to $100,000 to producers to assist with losses experienced due to drought conditions such as crop loss, increased feed costs, loss of livestock, and more. More information and applications can be found here.
  • Waterfowl hunting season begins soon in Utah, and hunters should be aware that drought conditions have impacted some species, likely resulting in fewer birds in Utah this fall. Low water levels in some areas will also impact access to some waterfowl management areas. Visit the DWR website for more details.
  • Boat ramp closures remain the same as last week, with 12 closures at 10 state parks, including Jordanelle, Antelope Island, Echo, Hyrum, Millsite, Piute, Rockport, Quail Creek, Willard Bay and Yuba. Caution advisories have been issued for seven additional state park boat ramps. View conditions here.

Drought Updates

Water Less

We don’t know how long this drought will last. That’s out of our control. But what is in our control is how we respond, and what we do as individuals, families, businesses, institutions and industries to conserve water anywhere we can. With 60% of residential water used outdoors, look for ways to improve your outdoor watering efficiency:

Water less. As temperatures start to cool, it’s time to cut back your lawn watering even more. Check the Weekly Lawn Watering Guide for current recommendations.

Prioritize your watering. Water trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals before grass. Grass is tough. It will enter dormancy during times of drought and will bounce back.

Raise your mower. Set your blades to 3 to 4 inches. Taller grass means deeper roots.

Check with your water provider for restrictions in your area. 

For drought-related questions, please email drought@utah.gov.

UT Drought Monitor

What Is Drought?

Drought is a normal and recurring climate feature. Although it occurs in virtually all of the world’s climatic zones, its characteristics vary significantly from one region to another. Consequently, there is no universal drought definition. In general, drought is a result of a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time, resulting in a water shortage, which impacts normal water usage. The severity of a drought depends upon the degree of moisture deficiency, its duration, and the size of the affected area. Because it is so hard to develop a quantitative definition for drought, it is difficult to determine precisely when a drought starts and ends.

In the United States, droughts are among the most financially burdensome of all weather-related disasters. In fact, in the 20 years preceding hurricane Katrina, the single largest U.S. weather-related disaster was the drought of 1988, which resulted in over $40 billion in damages throughout the central and northeastern portions of the country. Unlike impacts from floods, hurricanes, tornados or other weather-related disasters, drought impacts are not always immediate. Failed crops can impact food prices well into the future. Devastated domestic livestock and wildlife herds can also take many years to recover.

Managing Drought

Drought should not be viewed as merely a natural phenomenon or event. Its impact on society is often a result of the interplay between the natural event (reduced precipitation) and the way society responds with the management of existing supplies. People often compound the impacts of drought through the mismanagement of available supplies. One example of this occurs when outdoor watering restrictions imposed by community leadership are actually perceived by the general public as being premature or unnecessary. Often in these instances, while people comply with the letter of the law, water use actually rises. Consequently, an informed and caring general public is an important ingredient to successful drought management.

Utah’s successful drought management will in large part be a function of leadership providing the necessary information to the public, and people, in turn, responding positively. Utah’s current Drought Response plan was written during the drought of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The plan uses the Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) to describes five drought conditions. The SWSI is a relative scale with 0 representing average conditions. A positive number indicates that water supplies are above normal, while a negative number indicates that water supplies are below normal.

The first condition, Normal to wet, is really a non-drought condition and the plan merely calls for the periodic updating of SWSI data and maps. When the SWSI moves into the 0 to -1.0 range, conditions are still considered normal, with water supplies only slightly below average. Although this is not a true drought condition it is called “Emerging Drought” in the plan, primarily because of the potential for worsening conditions. During this phase, the plan merely calls for increased monitoring of data. When the SWSI moves below -1.0, the condition is a Phase I Drought. At this point, the state’s Water Supply and Availability Committee is activated and begins to closely monitor water supply data and initiates the dissemination of information to the media and general public. When the SWSI moves below -2.0, it is a Phase II drought condition. At this time, a Drought Review and Reporting Committee and Drought task force are created with members of various state agencies to coordinate drought response actions and facilitate the timely dissemination of data and information. The Governor’s Proclamation of Drought Emergency, rather than a SWSI number, triggers drought Phase III. The Governor’s declaration of drought emergency is the initial and necessary step to make available many of the state and federal drought assistance programs.

Measuring Drought

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a broad-scale national drought map. It is updated weekly and communicates any unusually dry conditions with 4 drought categories (moderate, severe, extreme, and exceptional drought) and an “abnormally dry” category, indicating areas that may be moving into or out of drought. These categories correspond to percentiles of different data (exceptional 0-2, extreme 3-5, severe 5-10, moderate 11-20, abnormal dryness 21-30), with the lower percentile numbers meaning drier conditions.

Different data that account for precipitation over multiple time scales, streamflow, groundwater, soil moisture, and other meteorological and hydrological variables, are placed into percentiles for different locations. Often, the different data will not all indicate the same drought category for a particular location. The author of that week’s map looks at all of this information and assigns a category to an area based on what percentile range the different indicators and indices converge on.

Since the U.S. Drought Monitor map is intended to show the entire nation, local conditions may vary from the categories shown on the map. Here in Utah, we rely upon snowmelt runoff stored in reservoirs to get through the hot summer irrigation season. If enough snow falls in the mountains during the winter months, dry summer weather conditions can be somewhat overcome in many areas of the state. While the U.S. Drought Monitor is a useful tool with many applications, the Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) is used to monitor drought status. The SWSI compares gauged streamflow and current reservoir storage with average streamflow and reservoir storage conditions. This comparison provides us with a more accurate assessment of our ability to deal with the drought situation indicated by the U.S. Drought Monitor map.

Drought Webinars

Drought webinars are held on a regular basis to collect feedback on weather conditions around the state. The webinars are hosted by a committee headed by the Division of Water Resources, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, and the Utah Climate Center. For more information on drought webinars, email drought@utah.gov.

Webinar Schedule

The next webinar is scheduled for September 21, 2021 at 1pm MT. (Webinars are typically scheduled on Tuesdays and are usually held every two weeks.)

Past Utah Drought Webinar Presentations

Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network

You can also participate in the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. This group is a unique, non-profit, community-based network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation. CoCoRaHS is run by the Utah Climate Center. For more information visit www.cocorahs.org