The American West is experiencing its worst drought in over 1200 years, according to a new study published inNature Climate Change that analyzed tree rings to gather information about historical soil moisture. Utah just experienced its third driest January on record since 1895, and Lake Powell, the country’s second-largest reservoir located in the southern part of the state, is at 27% capacity. 

While local, state and federal authorities across the West attempt to adjust to a drier future, the city of Moab is currently pursuing three different plans to better manage the city’s water. 

Drought across the West

“Drought is probably the biggest climate impact that most of the western U.S. states can experience,” said Jon Meyer, a research technician at the Utah Climate Center. “The impacts that we see from drought impact pretty much all facets of society and our economics across Utah and the region. Just about everything is tied somewhere along the lines to water—so when we have stressed water resources, there are ripple effects.” 

This period of drought is what researchers are calling the “new normal,” Meyer said. He pointed out that most of the 20th century—1901 to 2000—was one of the wettest periods in the past 1,000 years, which means that most of the world’s industry and socio-economics are reliant on a much wetter climate. 

Drought is defined purely by a lack of precipitation, Meyer said. Drought conditions are caused in part by the Earth’s jet streams: on one side of the jet stream, conditions are typically cooler and wetter; on the other side, conditions are hotter and drier. Typically, storm systems caused by the jet stream will rotate every few weeks—however, in recent years, the West has been stuck in an unusually hot and dry weather system, the “death of precipitation,” Meyer said. 

“A lot of our research goes into understanding these cycles of precipitation,” Meyer said. The West is stuck in a feedback loop, he said: this extended period of hotter weather causes any precipitation that does fall to evaporate much more quickly. 

Water Utility Resource Management Plan Coalition 

Locally, there are five main water conservation groups that impact Moab, according to City Engineer Chuck Williams: the nonprofit Canyonlands Watershed Council, the Moab Area Watershed Partnership, the Moab Water Conservation and Drought Management Advisory Board, the Spanish Valley Regional Water Management Coordination Group, organized by staff at the three largest water utility providers in the Moab/Spanish Valley Region; and the Water Utility Resource Management Plan Coalition, which was created earlier this year.  

The Water Utility Resource Management Plan Coalition is an offshoot of the Spanish Valley Regional Water Management Coordination Group. Last fall, the Group saw a need for a more cohesive water management plan between Moab and Spanish Valley. The Coalition was formed with the goal to “ensure resilient management of water resources for the residents and visitors of the valley,” according to Williams. 

The need for a plan stems from the fact that despite multiple studies being done in this region, there isn’t one answer forhow much water we have. The coalition’s plan—which is expected to be completed by early 2023—would tie together everything that’s been done in the region and create a plan for water conservation in the future. At a city council meeting on Feb. 22, Williams presented the goals and timeline of the plan to the council. 

“We know we’re going to run up against our water resource limits at some point,” said Councilmember Kalen Jones. “We have to plan for future development, but we also have to plan for constraints.” 

The City of Moab’s Water Conservation Plan 

The city is also working on implementing a Water Conservation Plan that was approved in December 2021. This plan is specific only to the city of Moab—the coalition covers a much larger region that includes parts of Grand and San Juan counties—and is required by the state. 

In December, the council decided to set a water use goal of using 250 gallons per capita per day by 2030, with a stretch goal of 230 gpcd. In 2015, Moab was using 282 gpcd. At the council meeting, Sustainability Director Mila Dunbar-Irwin presented how the city expects to meet that goal. 

This year, Dunbar-Irwin said she expects to adopt a new landscaping and greywater ordinance, adopt new development standards, install smart timers for all city parks, and send water-wise landscaping guides to all addresses in the city. The sustainability department will also continue an outreach and education campaign about water conservation, she said. 

“Education is going to be the biggest thing that needs to take place in 2022,” said Mayor Joette Langianese. “I think people need to really hear what we have to say, and I think it’s going to be kind of a challenge. A lot of people feel that they’re being told how to conserve water, yet the city is allowing hotels to fill up their swimming pools.” 

According to the Water Conservation Plan, in 2020, the biggest water users in Moab were residents. That year, the gallons per capita per day measured at 278 gcpd—166 gallons were used by residents, 89 by commercial entities and 22 by institutions, which includes all city, school and church buildings.

“No discussion of water use in Moab would be complete without addressing the impact of our many visitors,” the plan states. “Currently, our overnight accommodations account for approximately 16% of the commercial water used.” 

Water-wise landscaping

Both at the state and city level, elected officials are rallying around the idea of “water-wise landscaping,” or landscaping that helps to conserve water by utilizing low-water-use plants and limiting grass lawns, or turf. 

Just recently, the Utah State Legislature passed House Bill 282, which prohibits public or private entities from prohibiting water-wise landscaping, and the city is looking to adopt its own landscaping policies. At the Feb. 22 council meeting, the city heard from staff at two water conservation organizations, Western Resource Advocates and the WaterNow Alliance, about policies the city could adopt. 

Ideas included requiring a maximum percentage of living plant materials, which would reduce the need for watering; setting a limit to how much grass or turf could be planted and where; creating a plant list that all developments must follow; and utilizing fire-wise landscaping, in which developments would have to plant widely-spaced, low growing shrubs. 

Dunbar-Irwin said she expected to create a final list of proposed recommendations, to be written as code amendments, by June.