A dry winter may signal drought conditions later
(Editors note: Based on the weather this winter, if things don't change, this area will experience a drought. This is the first in a series of articles examining droughts, water use, water storage/sources, personal water footprints and what the impacts of a prolonged drought has done in the past and can do to the eastern Utah in the future).
When do you know you are in a drought?
Is it when you have noticed that very little snow has fallen in the winter?
Is it when you find yourself being happy because the roads over the canyons you drive have been less snow packed?
Is it when the days are warmer than you remember?
Is it when you turn on the water tap and nothing comes out?
There are a lot more questions one could ask about being in a drought, but all these things could happen in a drought, or they may not.
And it is important to note that while water supply is tied to drought, having a full water supply does not necessarily mean a location is not in a drought.
Of course the most draconian of the questions above is the one about turning on the tap and finding nothing wet coming out of it. That has happened in some places, during droughts. In fact, at present one Texas town is experiencing just that. Spicewood, Texas found out at the end of January that their wells were almost dry and they had to start hauling in water by tanker each day to supply the residents there. The year-long drought in Texas has been the worst since the Great Depression, but a big difference now is that the population of the areas affected has increased so much, and modern water systems and devices take up so much water, that dry taps can develop faster than in the days when water was drawn from a well by a bucket.
The town of Spicewood is an example of a place where a water supply that is available is not being tapped. There is a lake near the town, Lake Travis, but the city doesn't get its water from the lake; it comes from wells. At one point in January the well levels the town draws from dropped 1-3 feet overnight. Other Texas towns have also suffered similar situations and some have built new pipelines from other water sources or moved their water intakes farther into the lakes they get water from.
This is the problem that can arise. There may be sources of water in a drought stricken area, but can that source be either physically or legally used? And if so, how much would it cost to tap into that source?
Drought is a normal and recurring feature of climate. Although it occurs in virtually all of the world's climatic zones, its characteristics vary significantly from one region to another. In some of the world's most arid regions, a drought occurs when annual precipitation drops below 7 inches per year, while in the world's most moisture rich regions, a few weeks without rain might constitute a drought. A drought is based on what is normal or average for the area, or that is how man has come to verify its occurrence, although by watching the natural progress of things around it can be obvious.
Because of this there is no universal definition of drought. In the most general sense, 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.
By many measures a drought is the most devastating of all nature's weather-related disasters. In the United States, droughts often become the most costly weather phenomenon there is. In the 20 years preceding hurricane Katrina in 2005, 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 parts of the country. Unlike impacts from flood, hurricane, tornado or other weather-related disasters, drought impacts are not always immediate and obvious. Wind damage can be seen and measured. Following a flood it is fairly easy to tally up the value of the destroyed and damaged property. But the effects of a drought can be felt for years. Failed crops can impact food prices well into the future. Devastated domestic livestock, wildlife herds and natural plants can also take many years to recover.
Utah has lived with droughts ever since anyone can recall. It affected the pioneers, people in the 20th century and people today. It is supposed that one of the reasons early peoples cultures in eastern Utah, such as the Fremonts cultural collapse was largely because of drought. The water that was available could not support the agrarian and hunting population of the area.
Man has always tried to preempt drought by drawing water out of lakes or rivers that seemed to be full. Starting with early civilizations, aqueducts and reservoirs became the norm in large population areas. The Roman aqueducts are famous across Europe where the structures carried water sometimes for hundreds of miles.
In many ways today's systems are just extensions of those earlier efforts, but much larger and well developed. Technology has affected water supply by building huge storage and diversion projects that take water over mountains and from one drainage basin to another. These are called trans-basin diversions and while it is debatable in some circles, those don't always work out for the best for where the water is taken from. The Owen's Valley in northern California was once a thriving and green valley until it was tapped by the city of Los Angeles to become one of its major sources of supply. It is a very different place now than it was 100 years ago because of that.
Our modern society has become water hogs. The average person uses about 123 gallons of water per day. This is only for personal use, not including what industry needs and with that added in it is much higher. Flush the toilet, three gallons. Take a shower, 10-30 gallons. Wash the dishes for a day by hand, 20 gallons. Add to that washing clothes, brushing teeth, washing hands, shaving, etc. it can add up fast.
But the trend of water use inside the house is actually going down; conservation has worked in many places, that is except on the lawn and bushes outside.
"The best way to to conserve water is with education," said Jeff Richens, the district manager for the Price River Water Improvement District, referring to the Slow the Flow campaign that has been running along the Wasatch Front and has spilled over into the Carbon area too. "It's interesting to note that from the sewage side of the water system in this county we see much less water coming through our waste water treatment plant than we did in the mid 1980s. But on the opposite end we are treating more and more water every year for supply."
This seeming paradox has arisen because the sewer collection systems in the county have been improved. Thirty years ago many of the sewer lines were old and had cracks in them allowing water infiltration into the system.
"We also had a lot of storm drains (which is illegal) connected to the system," he said. "We have cleaned a lot of that up."
But the increase in culinary water use is a different story. It's not going down drains, new devices and education has worked there. But it is going into the ground from the watering of man-made landscaping. In a drought these activities have a profound affect upon supplies.
"During a water shortage if we ask consumers to just use enough water to keep their trees alive and to let the lawn die, many will comply," stated Richens. "But mandatory restrictions, where say someone in an area can water Monday, Thursday and Saturday, causes people to actually water more. They will water their lawns and bushes the whole time the are allowed to be sure they have enough. Again education is the important part. It is where people can make a difference."
When we as humans think of drought, these are the ways we perceive it. But we sometimes forget that there is lot more to a drought than not being able to water our lawn when we want to. There are things that can damage ecosystems and create problems well beyond our own backyards.
Sources: Utah Division of Water Resources, NRCS and Gale Book of Averages.