Or maybe even a glass of water.
The sun that weekend began the mountain snowmelt much sooner than normal. Because of this, Laura Haskell, a drought expert with the Utah Division of Water Resources told me, we now need about 5.5 inches of precipitation in less than a week to catch up to where the snowpack ought to be for a normal year.
That would be one heck of a storm.
Unfortunately, as I write this on a Thursday afternoon the sun has begun peaking through clouds that, according to an app on my phone, dropped about 0.05 inches on my lawn. That same app says the next forecasted rain is April 5, and unless it’s something close to a hurricane, we’re in trouble.
Utahns may be tired of hearing this story. That’s understandable. The essayist Charles Dudley Warner, not Mark Twain, was the first to say, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” but it has special significance today in a part of the nation Twain knew well.
Utah lawmakers may pat themselves on the back for allocating $40 million to save the Great Salt Lake from extinction, but no amount of money can do that unless the heavens cooperate.
“Hubris,” the satirist P.J. O’Rourke said, “is one of the great renewable resources.”
Politicians of both parties don’t like droughts any more than they like floods, because these don’t respond to appropriations or threats.
If things don’t change, however, this is going to become the biggest story of 2022, no matter how tedious it seems at the moment.
As a parched spring (forecasters say it will be drier and warmer than normal) turns to the heat of summer, water districts and municipal governments likely will have to come to terms with reality. Landscaping, Haskell told me, takes up 65% of residential water use. Expect the freedom to water your lawn to disappear first. Indoor water use would be a target of last resort. No one in the 21st century wants to ration the shower or the toilet.
But if the dry years continue, all bets are off, and Utah’s impressive growth rate may be forced into retreat.
At the end of our brief discussion this week, Haskell offered a metaphorical damp sponge of hope. This, too, shall pass.
While drought experts take into account climate change, she said, droughts exist separately, and they do have an end. The current drought plaguing much of the Western United States may be, as some have said, the worst in 12 centuries. It may cost farmers and ranchers millions and tax the limits of water management, but it won’t last forever.
That is a morsel of comfort, like some visitor from the future telling you your favorite team will one day win the NBA championship. But it doesn’t help much with the current season. And it doesn’t help that no one has a precise definition of “forever.”
At the moment, reservoirs in the state are about 10% less full than they were last year at the time, and last year was a festival of fires, dust and scorching heat.
“This megadrought may be like megadroughts in the paleo record, and will eventually have an end,” reads the notes from a meeting last fall of a drought forum, published on the state’s drought.gov website, “but considering the relative permanency of increased temperatures globally and in the American Southwest, policy makers, land managers, and community leaders face shifting paradigms as they consider the potential permanent aridification of the Southwest region.”
In other words, the pandemic isn’t the only thing directing us to a new normal.
A sage bit of wisdom urges mankind to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The time for debates over xeriscaping, ordinances requiring green lawns, building codes that require water-conserving appliances and other vestiges of a water-wasting culture are over.
Even if next year is the wettest on record, Utahns need to recognize that growth and prosperity depend on us treating water like the precious commodity it is. That, too, must become a new normal.