Drought monitoring and reporting in Utah

Dead Horse State Park by Pedro Szekely is in the public domain

Drought impacts information helps the State of Utah in drought monitoring, planning and response efforts, and U.S. Drought Monitor authors in categorizing drought severity.  However, drought impacts in Utah have historically been under-reported, meaning that important information does not consistently reach Utah decision-makers or Drought Monitor authors. The Southwest Hub and Drought Learning Network partners delivered an online workshop on December 4th, 2020. The main objectives of the workshop were to share information about evaluating, measuring, and reporting drought and to engage more people in reporting drought impacts. The agenda for this workshop is available here

Building a comprehensive picture of statewide drought impacts helps to provide a much clearer perspective of how different levels of drought affect the various sectors that depend on Utah's natural resources.  The Utah Drought Task Force wants to create a wide network of reporters to share information about drought impacts in Utah. This information helps the State of Utah in drought monitoring, planning and response efforts, and the Task Force also shares the information with U.S. Drought Monitor authors.  Land and natural resource managers, conservation districts, Extension, ranchers, farmers and others joined the workshop to learn about:

 (i) ways to evaluate, measure, and report drought,

(ii) current and projected conditions through winter 2021

(iii) available tools for analyzing and reporting drought at their location

The slides from the workshop are included below and the recorded workshop is available here.

 

During the workshop, participants were also encouraged to share their experience of drought impacts through the chat box and in breakout rooms. These are summarized below:

Hydrology and weather

  • Limited precipitation during the monsoon season and limited fall precipitation. Hot dry temperatures.
  • No major storm systems. Only weak disturbances. Lots of windy events driving greater evapotranspiration
  • NRCS Snow Survey: We monitor statewide precipitation, snowpack, and soil moisture conditions. We have recorded historically dry soils, well below normal precipitation, and are off to a bad start with the current snowpack. Reduced streamflow and very dry soils.
  • Utah received half the precipitation to date compared to the previous water year. It's been dry and warm and very infrequent rainfall that tends to be light
  • Quite a few folks mentioned the reduced streamflow, mentioning low to no flows from mountain springs. This has resulted in a shortage of culinary water for urban areas.
  • Extremely low river flows, and low lake and reservoir levels
  • An NRCS employee mentioned receiving continued questions about how “we” can keep getting enough water for agricultural producers to continue operating – or how can we change water conveyance systems
  • Water shortage on the Navajo Nation which required water hauling for consumption
  • Low reservoirs
  • Meters placed on secondary water supply

Water Quality

  • When the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) tried to do work in the wetlands at the edge of the Great Salt Lake they couldn’t access the area because it was too dry. Plants were very dry.
  • DEQ received many reports from Weber Basin that East Canyon Creek was overgrown with an algae biomat due to low flows. They assume this affects fish and other life in the stream.
  • Increased cyanobacteria in southern Utah rivers
  • Southern Utah, larger than normal algae outbreaks. Increasing hazard component people working in areas - Water and temp indicator for the outbreaks (Increase in tourism, contributed to bacteria and streamflow decreases (large amount of people recreating without bathroom facilities-ecoli issues)

Range

  • On rangeland ecosystems, there is a pronounced lack of vegetation production, and in some areas this presents the problem of over-utilization of forage. Without enough forage, cattlemen are having to come off early or go on late on private or permitted lands.
  • Limited forage for both cattle and wildlife, brittle range vegetation, vegetation is brown.
  • Lack of available forage for sale
  • No mosture of significance, range conditions deteriorating; Shrubs such as sagebrush producing little or no seed heads.
  • Dry ponds, little available water. Farmers and rancher have been hauling water to livestock.
  • Lots of dry dust
  • Many areas in Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan Counties with below average vegetation production
  • From the Bureau of Land Management (BLM):  25-75% reduction in grazing allotments which will have longer term impacts with lack of seed production 
  • Livestock came off the ranges early
  • Increased livestock sales,
  • Less forage growth than usual. Body condition of livestock are not the best condition.
  • Very stressful time for producers

Agriculture

  • Increased dependence on irrigation due to lack of rain – but there was limited access to irrigation water.
  • Conservation Districts had reports that areas, particularly in the Sevier area, shut off irrigation very early. Some companies were shutting off irrigation water in July.  Alfalfa farmers lost 1 to 2 cuttings. Dry land farmers struggled.
  • Lack of wheat germination
  • Ground water wells dropping rapidly, reduction in flowing wells
  • Many have struggled with invasive species
  • Bad for farmers and fish with low flows.

Natural ecosystems and wildlife

  • No pine nuts, acorns, increase in grasshoppers, grass growing a month later. Greened up later. Usually greens in Sept/Oct this year November
  • Increased wildfires
  • All of the vegetation is dry, higher risk of wildfire spread
  • Increased duration of critical fire conditions – longer fire season
  • Trees look stressed.
  • Pinyon Ips are more active
  • The deer and elk body condition extremely bad
  • Water sources dried up. Increased congregation with livestock and wildlife to get water.
  • Bears moved into downtown Moab due to lower food sources

Recreation

  • No snow skiing

Information needs

  • State level economic impact data. Past reports are hard to find (e.g., FEMA)
  • Losses by year and sector
  • More accurate long-range forecasts. The technology isn’t there yet but they would be helpful.
  • More soil moisture observations
  • Additional real-time reservoir monitoring (for non-Bureau of Reclamation or Conservation District reservoirs).
  • A more extensive list of resources to help advisors give drought recommendations.  
  • Larger number of SCAN climate and soil moisture monitoring sites (only 34). Between SCAN and other networks, there is maybe 225 observations of soil moisture in the entire state
  • More information on water delivery - more coordination to support communities*
  • More information that explains how data is collected and used to determine drought
  • Where are highly vulnerable areas, where people don’t have water?.
  • Information on how to use the new Utah Climate Center dashboard 
  • Indices that are real time vegetative conditions like VegDRI and GrassCast