Reservoirs are crucial to Utah’s water system, and they’re running low
Utah hit some dire drought markers this year: the whole state reached extreme and exceptional drought classifications, and on average, the state’s reservoirs have hovered at around half full.
Utah’s reservoir system relies on runoff from winter snowpack. During really wet years, the reservoirs fill up. During really dry years, people dip into them, like this year.
“We are completely done with any runoff, and now we're relying on basically our emergency storage across the state,” Gov. Spencer Cox said in mid-July. “We do have enough storage capacity in the state to get through this year. If you have another year like this one, that's where things get especially dicey.”
Some reservoirs were well below 50% capacity this year, including Yuba Reservoir, also known as Sevier Bridge Reservoir.
The lake is just north of Gunnison in central Utah. In mid-September, state park manager Cheston Slater stood at the bottom of a very long and dry boat ramp. There was a sign warning boaters of the shallow water, saying “launch at your own risk.”
“When full it's about 22 miles in length,” Slater said looking out over the reservoir. “Sometimes there is 80 feet of water in there, but right now, as you can see, we are limited to just the Oasis Bay. There is about 9% of water capacity in the reservoir right now, which translates into about 12 feet of water.”
People can still recreate on the water at Yuba, just not as many of them, and they have to be more careful of nearby boaters. Slater said some people are instead playing on the growing shorelines.
Slater said he has seen Yuba fluctuate wildly over the years, but they try to keep it at no less than 7-8% so they don’t lose access to the boat ramp completely.
“When I first got here in 2011, the lake was completely full. It was mostly full in 2012, and then we gradually went down,” he said. “It's just kind of trickled down. I've seen it at 3%, and this year it got as low as 8%. … Basically we're at the mercy of snow.”
Ninety-five percent of Utah’s water supply is from snowpack, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Utah’s reservoir system
Reservoirs are for much more than recreation. Utahns use the water for everything from crops and lawns to drinking water and showering.
This interconnected system is how Europeans were able to settle much of the arid West. Without the reservoirs, many of the cities we know today wouldn’t exist, according to Patrick Belmont, head of the department of watershed sciences at Utah State University.
“Historically, the white population in the western U.S. has very closely tracked with the number of reservoirs we've built and the amount of water storage that we've accumulated,” he said. “So we're very much developed around where we're able to store water for longer periods of time.”
Utah has 42 large reservoirs that tie together mountain streams and smaller reservoirs. David Rosenberg is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at USU and is part of the Utah Water Research Laboratory. He said the system was made to be dynamic.
“We've built reservoirs as a way of trying to regulate,” Rosenberg said. “We have a very variable hydrology, a very variable climate, and a reservoir’s main intent is to try and smooth that out.”
Some reservoirs empty and refill every year. But generally, the West is on a drying trend.
A majority of Utahns get water from the Colorado River Basin, which Rosenberg said is experiencing a millennium drought. He points to Lake Powell, Utah’s largest reservoir and the country’s second. In 1999, it was near capacity. Now it’s less than 30% full.
“Starting in 2000, we had a drought and we've been in this drought for a while,” he said. “This is not oscillation. This is drawdown, punctuated by a year or two here and there where we came up a bit.”
Critical point in time
Belmont said reservoirs are important to our survival. But also having so much water readily available — and oftentimes cheaply — has hurt our sense of how scarce it is.
“We have been fairly wasteful, because we felt like water was plentiful,” Belmont said. “[On] one hand, it's the most valuable resource in the western U.S. On the other hand, we basically don't pay for it. We pay pennies on the dollar relative to what it’s really worth to us.”
Utah Rivers Council said Utahns pay some of the lowest rates in the West. Data the group released in March says on average, St. George pays $3.55 per thousand gallons, while neighboring Las Vegas pays $5.27.
Some cities saved quite a bit of water this year. In sunny St. George, city officials said residents saved 362 million gallons of water over this summer compared to 2020.
Belmont said that is a good start, and it is important for people to think about their water usage. But he said it is not enough given the dry path Utah is on.
“You taking a slightly shorter shower is not going to solve our water problem,” he said. “We have bigger systemic problems that we need to address in terms of our water rights system, in terms of how agriculture is using water. Those are much bigger conversations that are ultimately laying the foundation for solving this problem.”
Belmont said the state also needs to figure out more efficient ways to store and use water. As well as address the driving causes of climate change — like our reliance on fossil fuels.
Rosenberg said Utah and the West are at a critical point in time, and people should take the opportunity to rethink how these systems work. He said water managers and state leaders need to be even more adaptable and creative given current circumstances and potential outcomes.
“I think a really important shift in thinking about management is [that] reservoirs are all about uncertainty and managing uncertainty and the variations of flows from one year to another,” Rosenberg said. “We may get a particularly bad run of years, and we have to be prepared.”
Since no one can control the weather, some people are looking on high this winter, including Yuba State Park’s Cheston Slater.
“I'm praying, hoping and crossing my fingers for a wet, wet, wet winter and lots of snow,” he said. “I’m optimistic we’ll bounce back, it seems like we usually do.”
Already, statewide snowpack is nearly 130% of the median to start out November. But water experts say it’ll take a lot more than that to make a big difference in the drought.