Low water levels at Lake Powell

Low levels in Lake Powell leave boat ramps hanging well above the water line. [Photo courtesy National Park Service]

Last week, Utah State University hosted a webinar for natural resource professionals to discuss a drought reporting network called “Condition Monitoring Observer Reports.” Through a mobile app, Utah citizens can document drought impacts and submit their observations to a database used by state and university drought researchers and scientists. The data can help give scientists a more qualitative, detailed understanding of on-the-ground conditions and impacts of drought. Are farmers’ crops, or ranchers’ grazing areas, being affected? Are recreation areas changing? Photographs showing a location in a wet year and later in a dry year can give helpful comparative references.

Details like these, giving a fuller picture of what it means to be in a condition of drought, are increasingly important to scientists, policy-makers, and citizens of the Southwest as we grapple with the ongoing dry conditions. On March 17, Utah Governor Spencer Cox declared Utah to be in a state of emergency due to drought; 90% of the state is considered to be in “extreme” drought, and the entire state is in at least “moderate” drought. All of Grand County is in the “extreme” category, and some of the county is in the even more severe “exceptional” drought category.

An extreme demonstration of the drought is the current level of Lake Powell, which is nearing historic lows. At the beginning of the 2021 water year, the lake was at 48% of capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. In an April 15 update, the bureau reported that the lake had dipped even further to just 36% of capacity at the end of March.

The lake’s current shoreline looks very different than in higher water years; one family of visitors even discovered a shipwrecked boat, now completely emerged from the receded water. Receding waters have stranded boat ramps and drained marinas, however, the low lake levels could have much graver consequences than altered recreation experiences.

The lake level at the end of March, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, was about 3,567 above sea level. If the level drops to 3,525 feet above sea level, normal hydropower production and water releases from the lake are at risk.

The 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, agreed upon by the states who rely on the Colorado River for water, dictates that if reservoir levels reach critical lows, Upper Basin states will need to initiate drastic conservation measures to increase those water levels.

Water conservation has been a concern locally, with the Moab City Council holding discussions in recent months about Moab Valley water resources. The Glen Canyon aquifer provides most of Moab’s drinking water, and scientific studies in recent years have raised concerns about “safe yield” levels, or how much water per year it is safe to draw from the aquifer while still allowing it to recharge. Marc Stilson, regional engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights, gave a presentation at the May 4 Grand County Commission meeting, updating elected officials on the division’s recent work. A six-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey, to which the state Division of Water Rights contributed, attempted to determine how much groundwater is in the valley.

“Unfortunately it was much less than previous studies,” Stilson noted. The report estimated the amount of developable water left to be between 1,300 and 3,500 acre feet. He noted that other water sources might include surface water like Mill Creek and Pack Creek and the Colorado River.

Stilson said there are still a lot of questions about Moab’s watershed and aquifers, and more studies are needed. For example, the USGS study identified Pack Creek as one of the main drivers of the Valley Fill aquifer, but the agency does not have a gauge on Pack Creek to gather more data. Stilson said a gauge could be installed on Pack Creek as early as this summer for about $6,000.

The Division of Water Rights is also in the process of adjudicating water rights in the valley, reviewing every water right to find out how much is actually being used. When the study is complete, which is projected to be this fall, the division will publish a study showing the estimated volume of water use in the valley, helping policy-makers understand water demand.

City officials have discussed implementing straightforward water use ordinances for conservation, such as time-of-day watering restrictions, while also considering system-wide efficiency improvements such as creating a separate water delivery system for irrigation water and consolidating private wells into the city system.

State agencies are making adjustments in response to the drought. In an April 29 press release, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources announced that it will issue fewer general-season permits for deer hunting in 2021 than it did in 2020. The DWR’s current management plan holds an objective to have just over 400,000 deer throughout the state; current estimates put the state deer population at 314,850.

“We’ve had a few drought years in Utah recently, which has a significant impact on the survival rates of deer,” said DWR Big Game Coordinator Covy Jones in the press release. “In Utah, we have the longest range-trend study in the Western U.S., and we’ve seen that having suitable habitat is crucial for maintaining or growing wildlife populations. And drought conditions can really negatively impact that habitat, which in turn affects our wildlife species.”

The division will issue 5,650 fewer deer hunting permits than last year.

In the March 17 press release announcing the executive order declaring a state of emergency, Cox encouraged water users to employ water-saving practices like fixing leaks, making sure dishwashers and laundry machines are full before running loads, and turning off the faucet when not needed while toothbrushing, shaving, soaping up, doing dishes or rinsing vegetables. Other water-saving practices include reducing shower times, planting “water-wise” lawns and gardens, and installing water-efficient fixtures. Utah has rebate programs for some of these techniques, which can be found at utahwatersavers.com.

“I ask Utahns to evaluate their water use and find ways to save not only because of current drought conditions but also because we live in one of the driest states in the nation,” said Cox in the March 17 press release.