Dire drought conditions dominate Utah’s environmental landscape in 2021
As we near the end of the year, the KUER newsroom is looking back on the biggest stories we covered in 2021. This has been an important year for environmental issues in the state. One of the most talked about topics of 2021 has been the drought — at one point pretty much the whole state was in the worst drought classification. KUER’s Pamela McCall spoke with our Southern Utah bureau and environmental reporter Lexi Peery to break down what’s happened.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pamela McCall: Lexi, what made the drought such a big story this year?
Lexi Peery: I think it's important to note, first of all, that the Colorado River Basin has been in a drought since 2000, but what I think made this year really bad was low soil moisture which led to low runoff and low water levels at the reservoirs. That's why we had a lot of messaging about conservation and drought emergency declarations. And other places were taking even bigger steps than they have in the past. Cities in Washington County are actually all working on ordinances that would limit lawns and new developments.
PM: The West is running out of water and the Colorado River is hitting record lows. Recent reports from environmental groups also showed that Utah and other Upper Basin states are overusing their water allocation. Lexi, how are leaders responding to that claim, especially with new developments in the works?
LP: I talked to Utah water officials at a recent Colorado River conference, and, essentially, they say that the claim of overuse is unsubstantiated. They say that the science doesn't back it up since they're meeting the required deliveries to Lower Basin states. But environmentalists point out that the river has shrunk by 20% in the last 20 years, and it's not smart for states like Utah to keep pursuing water projects that would pull even more water from the river. For Utah, the biggest development that they're working on is the Lake Powell Pipeline, and it's still top of mind because water officials at the state and local leaders really want to make sure that there's another source of water for Washington County, which is quickly growing. The priority [for Utah officials] seems to really be the poor hydrology and making sure Lake Powell and Lake Mead are above critical levels.
PM: Bad fire seasons and drought go hand in hand. What happened this year when it came to fires?
LP: In 2020, we had a historic fire season because of the number of human-caused fire starts. At the beginning of the  season, fire officials were talking a lot about this being another really bad one because a lot of people are outdoors, recreating and getting out because of the pandemic. But things kind of took a turn in mid-July when monsoonal rains blanketed the state, especially in southern Utah. But that did lead to flash flooding in Iron County and other parts of the state. So it's kind of a double-edged sword to have that amount of rain. I think it's important to note though that fires can happen at any time of year. Zion had its first February fire this year, so I think it’s important for the public to be thinking about fire safety all the time.
PM: There was also monumental news when it came to national monuments in Utah. President Joe Biden restor[ed] Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante after being slashed by the Trump administration.
LP: This is a huge win for environmentalists and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. But even before the announcement was made, Utah leaders were gearing up for a lawsuit, and that still is the case. The Utah Attorney General's Office has hired a law firm to help them potentially pursue a lawsuit, so that’s something to look forward to in 2022.
PM: There have been some movements on controversial infrastructure projects in the state. The Northern Corridor Highway in your neck of the woods and the Uinta Basin Railway in eastern Utah. What's the latest on those?
LP: Both of those projects got approved this year by federal agencies. The Northern Corridor Highway is a road that’s going to cut through protected Mojave desert tortoise habitat just north of St. George. The Uinta Basin Railway was approved just in December, and that’s expected to increase oil and gas production in the region. These are both facing objections from the environmental community because of their cost and their potential impact to public lands. In the case of the Uinta Basin Railway especially, environmentalists are concerned about the increase of fossil fuel emissions given the poor air quality we’re experiencing and how climate change is already impacting the region.
PM: Lexi, what are you looking ahead at in 2022?
LP: I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with these lawsuits I've mentioned with Bears Ears and other infrastructure projects. But the drought is not going away, unfortunately. The Utah Climate Center says that there's expected to be increased precipitation, but one good snow season is not going to get us out of the drought. Already, Gov. [Spencer] Cox has announced that half a billion dollars will go towards conservation, restoration and water infrastructure. But the bottom line is Utahns need to think of this drought as a long-term thing and that conservation needs to be top of mind going forward.