The dry life
Utah must prepare for a dry summer
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah may have temporarily foiled the attempt by Las Vegas to make off with 21 billion gallons or so of Snake Valley water. But even larger and more pressing water issues are facing the state and the region, and they won't be addressed by a simple flourish — or lack thereof — of the governor's pen.

Gov. Gary Herbert deserved all the praise that was heaped upon him in the last few days after he announced that, despite significant political pressure and the threat of lawsuits, he would not sign the Snake Valley agreement that purported to make an even split of the precious and ancient water that lies deep under the dry soil straddling the Utah-Nevada border.

The proposed pact was an utter sham. The idea that Vegas could take "its half" of the water, pipe it 285 miles away in a vain attempt to slake the thirst of that artificial oasis, and not destroy the fragile ecosystem at the other end of the straw ignores common sense. Promises of monitoring wells and preserved water rights were just another way for the house to fleece the rubes.

Meanwhile, experts who watch this sort of thing were raising the alarm about a problem that is much more in the here and now. This summer — not some summer 20 years from now, but this summer — Utah in general and the Wasatch Front in particular are facing the unpleasant impacts of a real drought.

A snapshot of current conditions shows that reservoirs are standing some 20 percent lower than they were last year at this time, when some were frighteningly low to begin with. Snowpack is way down and already started its annual meltdown. Precipitation has been running 77 percent of normal, while streamflows are as low as 20 percent of normal.

What all that means is that Utah's longtime way of surviving the summer — living off the water that fell as snow during the winter — does not look so promising for 2013. Everyone, from your house to the governor's office, will have to be on the alert and ready to take action.

One useful starting place is the bill Herbert signed the other day, allowing the state forester to ban outdoor target shooting in places and at times when the risk of wildfire is high. This summer, it will be high in a lot of places, most of the time.

Other steps, from limits on lawn watering to extra vigilance against fires that could quickly consume entire subdivisions, will be necessary.

Utah, for all its beauty and opportunity, is a desert. The people who live here must act like it.