The past few wet winters have been good to arid Utah, but history has proven that drought conditions will be here again, and the Utah Foundation wants to warn people about wasting water.
A foundation report released Thursday said that over a 29-year period, Utah was the second driest state in the nation. Nevada was the driest from 1971 to 2000, receiving less precipitation than any other state.
In Utah, two thirds of all nonpotable and potable water sources used by residents went toward outdoor use, such as watering lawns. The report urged elected officials to continue to work on water conservation strategies that will help maintain water supply and reduce water usage levels during both drought and sufficient water periods.
The Utah Foundation is a 60-year-old Utah-based nonprofit, nonpartisan group that offers information to policy makers on a variety of issues. Foundation president Stephen Kroes said in an interview that the report was intended to show people where Utah's water comes from, where it's used and what the state's water cycles are like.
"Utah has done an adequate job of providing water supplies for the population we have," Kroes said. "There's certainly room for conservation."
As for future water projects that will be developed by the state, Kroes said planning for the next 50 years will be contentious.
In its 2008 Utah Priorities Survey, the foundation reported that Utahns ranked water supply and water quality seventh among voters' top 10 issues and concerns for the 2008 election. The same survey in 2004, amid a drought, found that water issues ranked third.
For its research brief this week on water, the group used information and data from agencies that included the Western Regional Climate Center, Utah Division of Water Resources and Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Utah Division of Water Resources assistant director Todd Adams said he agreed with the foundation's findings.
"We're in an arid state we have wet periods and we have dry periods," Adams said. "That's what we have reservoirs and storage for, to help us get through the dry periods. We believe that conservation needs to be a long-term ethic, and we need to do our part to conserve."
Part of the foundation's report focused on Bear Lake's level and water supply problems in the Bear River Basin. As of last July, the lake was at 33 percent of total capacity and 45 percent of its historical average. Many other reservoirs around Utah this year have been near or above total capacity because of heavier-than-normal snowfall this past winter.
The differences in water levels around the state illustrate how variable water storage can be, depending on the region and how much precipitation has been received, the report said.
Statewide drought is always a possibility. Droughts in 1977, 1988 and 2002 were considered the worst of any droughts since the "dust bowl days" of the 1930s, the report said. Droughts in Utah seem to appear about once every decade, followed by a number of wet years.
From 2002 to 2004, parts of Utah experienced what the report described as "exceptional" drought, which is defined by widespread crop or pasture losses; exceptional fire risk; and water emergencies due to shortages in reservoirs, streams and wells.The report may be found at www.utahfoundation.org.