Drought

State of Emergency Due to Drought Conditions
Extreme drought conditions continue to plague the state. Utah is the fastest-growing state in the nation, and one of the driest. Please do your part to reduce your use and conserve this critical resource.

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.

“All indicators show this could be the worst drought year on record,” Gov. Cox said. “Utah state government is leading the way by cutting back on water use at all state facilities, but all of us — from private businesses to local governments to individuals — need to conserve water now more than ever.” 

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 at less than 50% of normal.
  • A dry April was followed by an even drier May, with less than one-half-inch of precipitation accumulated in valley locations. Record temperatures in June have contributed to the state’s tinderbox conditions, making wildfire danger extremely high.

Weekly Drought Updates (week of July 26)

  • Decreasing reservoir levels are leading to more boat ramp closures. Seven boat ramps are currently closed at six state parks, including Antelope Island, Echo, Millsite, Piute, Willard Bay, and Yuba. Caution advisories have been issued for eight additional state park boat ramps as well. Get up-to-date information before heading to the lake or reservoir here.
  • The magnitude of harmful algal blooms (HABs) continues to be a concern for recreators on Utah’s water bodies. The lake-wide Warning Advisory for Utah Lake remains in place, and a Danger Advisory has been issued by the Utah County Health Department for Lindon Marina. Visitors to the marina should avoid swimming, skiing, or boating in the waterbody, and pets and children should not be allowed in the water. Fishers are advised to clean fish well and discard guts. Current state-wide HAB status can be found here.
  • In anticipation of continued low water levels due to extreme drought conditions across the state, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources issued more emergency changes to Utah’s fishing regulations. Those changes will allow anglers to catch and keep more fish at some additional waterbodies around the state. More information here.
  • Reservoir storage statewide continues to drop and now averages 55% (down from 56% last week). Thirty of Utah’s largest 42 reservoirs are below 55% of available capacity. Lost Creek and Lower Enterprise all dropped below 55%.
  • Current statewide reservoir levels are now lower than they were at the end of last year’s irrigation season in October (55% now compared to 61% in October 2020). There are about two-and-half months remaining in the irrigation season when water use is traditionally at its peak. View levels here.
  • The average daily value of the Great Salt Lake hit a new record low July 23 (reported July 24) when it dropped to 4191.3 as measured at the SaltAir gauge location. Levels are continuing to drop and set new records, currently 4191.2. Levels are unlikely to improve until fall storms move in and agricultural irrigation ends for the season. The previous record was set in October 1963, with an elevation of 4191.35, rounded to 4191.4 to conform with current data collection and a recorded size of 950 square miles. (In 1963, levels were measured to the hundredth. Today, they are measured to the tenth of a foot.)
  • Streamflows statewide remain low with 72 of the 97 measured streams flowing below normal. Daily flow from 28 headwater streams is currently flowing slightly above the previous minimum daily flow record due to monsoonal precipitation over the last week.

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. Our lawns will survive with two waterings per week in northern Utah and three in southern Utah. It’s okay if the grass browns.

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 August 10, 2021. (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