Perhaps the best way to understand weather in the West is to imagine an old vaudeville sketch. A man, weak and near death, enters the stage on his knees, crawling amid sand and sagebrush, his voice rasping out a desperate cry for help. “Water! Water!”
Suddenly, from off stage, come bucketsful of water, right in the face, until the man finds himself in peril of drowning.
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If you’re new to the West, you may just be learning how the term “boom and bust” has application beyond the fortunes of the mining industry that helped settle this land.
If you’re new to Utah, you may be coming to understand the religious natures of so many people here. This is a place where survival requires a bit of faith, good works and a lot of grace. The need for good works — adequate planning and smart conservation — doesn’t ebb and flow with lake levels or mountain snowpack. Today’s emergency sandbagging event can turn quickly into tomorrow’s neighborhood effort to report people who are watering lawns and washing cars.
At the end of last summer, I wrote about how the north shore of the Great Salt Lake stood at 4,189.2 feet above sea level, an all-time low. As I write this, it’s at 4,193.2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And we haven’t really started the spring runoff yet.
Not many months ago, several cities in Utah were devising restrictions and fines for non-necessary water use. I thought about that last month as I sat through a legislative briefing on flooding in Northern Utah. In Cache, Weber and Box Elder counties, rain and melting snow gave sewer systems more than they could handle in February. Sewage backed into homes, leading people to long for the days when their biggest worry was a brown lawn.
In a strange twist, those residents again were asked to conserve water, but only because the system couldn’t handle any more of it going down the drain.
And that’s the lesson Utahns can’t afford to forget. Water, a necessary source for prosperity and growth, can’t be taken for granted. One wet year doesn’t change that. Experts say about 6 million people will live here by 2060. That’s 3 million more thirsty souls who could keep water from reaching the Great Salt Lake, which in turn could become so small as to no longer intensify storms that dump snow in the mountain, which could give the state’s largest cities less water to drink in the summers, and so on.
As I’ve written before, state lawmakers ought to ensure Utahns are paying the true cost of water by ending the generous property tax subsidies going toward water districts. The result might be higher water fees for average residents, but perhaps not so much if water districts would let people use a basic amount each month before fees escalate.
That would take a lot of political courage, however, and that’s not easy to find when the rain keeps falling the way it has through much of March.
Utah isn’t the only state where people are keeping a wary eye on the mountains, hoping a rise in temperatures won’t send a waterfall of melting snow into cities and onto farms. We’re also not the only ones feeling grateful.
In Southern California, for the first time in many years, colorful poppies have begun to blanket the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. That led writer Robin Abcarian to what she said in the Los Angeles Times was a natural conclusion. “California is back.”
“After years of drought, the state has come alive again. It is green and vibrant. Nowhere is the landscape more spectacular than here, where an electric patchwork of grasses and wildflowers is dominated by the neon bloom that has a claim on the heart of every Californian.”
It is indeed a welcomed sight, as are the storms that seem to have found Utah after so many years of flying by like some disinterested presidential candidate.
That’s why I have to tell you about the ending to that imaginary vaudeville act. The water disappears, the hot winds blow and, unless he remembered to fill his canteen, the man again cries for water.