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Utah megadrought
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Research shows Utah is in a megadrought, along with much of the Southwest US

(Low water levels are pictured in Echo Reservoir north of Coalville on Thursday, May 6, 2021. Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah– The drought hitting Utah right now may be worse than we thought. Researchers say we are actually in a megadrought across the Southwest United States.

Conditions are considered a megadrought when “a drought that is at least 19 years in length that’s below a given magnitude relative to historic records,” said BYU geology professor Matt Bekker. “So according to that definition, we are officially in a megadrought.”

Trees show Utah megadrought conditions 

Bekker studies tree rings. He says for most of the trees in Utah, a wide ring is a wet year and a narrow ring is a dry year.

He has taken samples from trees that are hundreds, maybe thousands of years old. The trees give us a broader look at droughts and comparisons for today, according to Bekker. 

When conducting broader research for the area and analyzing tree cycles, Bekker noticed a warm, dry pattern.

“It doesn’t mean that every year over the past 20 years has been dry–we have a wet year here and there. But because most years have been dry, we see a drop in levels at the reservoirs losing that water supply,” he said.

Some of Utah’s most visited summer attractions are limiting access due to low water levels. Water levels at Lake Powell, for example, are more than 30% lower than normal. Additionally, Utah farmers are worried about not having enough water to sustain their crops. 

Changing water habits 

Drought conditions have worsened over the years, but water habits haven’t altered much. 

“We are definitely in a drought for our water year that started in October,” said Bekker.  “[We’ve been] in a drought the last couple of years, and it’s clear the last 20 years as a whole.”

However, in order to minimize the already prevalent impacts of the megadrought in Utah, residents must be aware of their water usage.

Bekker says knowing we are in a historic drought may help people make changes, like following this year’s guidelines to water yards and lawns less. He says it’s ok if your grass goes yellow – don’t kill it – but you don’t have to water as often.

There are other steps individuals and homeowners can take other steps to conserve water, too. Bekker says water in the morning or evening and not in the heat of the day. Check your sprinkler heads for waste. Fix leaky faucets, running toilets, and take short showers.

The need to conserve water is especially needed for the sectors that use the resource the most. Bekker noted agriculture, businesses, schools, and governments can be big water wasters, for a variety of reasons.

As a way to combat wasted water, Bekker believes cities, counties and the state can change laws and regulations. Additionally, to Bekker, water-guzzling organizations can be more proactive when it comes to conserving water.