Park City’s extreme drought starts to impact water usage
Homeowners asked to cut outdoor water usage by 20%
In mid-January, during a dry start to winter in the Wasatch Range, a climatologist said it would have to snow almost all the way through May for snowpack levels to approach normal.
And while enough snow eventually fell to satisfy skiers and snowboarders, the Park City area remains in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with summer and wildfire season on the horizon.
The snowpack has likely peaked and is melting into the area’s waterways, officials indicated. But because of historically dry soils, much of the snowmelt is being absorbed by the earth on its way to the area’s streams and rivers.
Glen Merrill, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City who also manages its hydrology program, said on April 8, before the recent round of storms, that the snowmelt runoff was predicted to be only half of normal levels for the Weber River and Upper Provo River basins.
“Quite grim,” he said of the situation.
The Park City area’s water providers have taken steps to curtail residential water use, with multiple municipalities enacting restrictions on when residents can water their lawns, and Oakley forbidding its residents from filling outdoor swimming pools and ponds.
Scott Morrison, the general manager of the Mountain Regional Water District, which provides water to much of Summit County, said this drought warrants serious attention, but that he sees it in a broader context.
“I don’t look at this, the 2021 drought, if you will, as a single event, but rather I think this is something that we as a community need to get ready for and be used to,” he said. “… It’s not just this year. If you want to call it a paradigm shift, it’s a gradual progression of lower available water supply.”
He said the Weber Basin Water Reclamation District, which supplies the bulk of Mountain Regional’s water, is requesting its users reduce their outdoor water usage by 20%. Morrison said he thinks that can largely be accomplished by adhering to the district’s guidelines to water lawns only between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m., and only on alternating days.
“We as a district deliver four times as much water in the summer as we do in the winter. … The showers didn’t get four times longer (between seasons),” Morrison said.
Morrison added that the district was requesting reductions on water used outside only.
“Let’s be clear, the water needed to protect public health is absolutely secure,” Morrison said. “I mean indoor water, we’re not touching indoor water.”
But Morrison said with reduced water levels likely here to stay, he anticipated the guidelines set out by the district would become requirements in future years.
That should push homeowners to consider how to use less water in the future, possibly by transitioning away from lawns and landscaping that requires heavy watering, he said. One way homeowners can learn about their own usage is to access the smart water meters that have been installed on 97% of the homes the district serves.
The meters can show how much water a particular activity uses, and homeowners can more quickly detect leaks or abnormal water uses.
The district is also working on a drought response plan, considering how it might enforce future water restrictions and establishing a reserve fund to offset revenue hits that are expected when users buy less water, Morrison said.
Water conservation isn’t the only concern. With a fire season that has already sparked in some areas of Utah, the drought seems to spell dangerous conditions this summer and beyond.
But Mike Owens, the Park City Fire District fire marshal, said the Park City area’s unique climate offers some protection against wildfire, though residents should take steps to harden their homes against the threat.
“Our little corner of Utah is right where we want it to be,” Owens said, citing lower temperatures and relative moisture and humidity compared to more arid parts of the state.
“We’re not insulated against it, but what’s going on in great portions of our state is not representative of what’s happening up here,” Owens said. “Our climate’s completely different. We have a much higher elevation, lower temperatures, different winds.”
He and Park City Fire Chief Paul Hewitt said forecasts calling for earlier than normal summer monsoons could provide some meaningful help in avoiding wildfires.
“There was a year I called it ‘tinderbox conditions,’ and we’re not there,” Hewitt said.
Local fire officials and national forecasters indicated fire danger should remain low as vegetation “greens up” in the spring.
Once fire season hits around early July, however, forecasters say the situation will likely change, when the conditions present in southern Utah of “above normal” potential for significant wildfires move northward.
Local fire agencies request that homeowners clear a defensible space around their homes so that a wildfire cannot easily burn to the structure. They offer wood-chipping programs to remove vegetation cleared in such efforts.
The Utah Department of Agriculture took one of the animals for testing, and it’s been unable to determine the cause of death thus far.
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