A Drought So Dire That a Utah Town Pulled the Plug on Growth


OAKLEY, Utah — Across the western United States, the heat of record-breaking droughts, heat waves and megafires triggered by climate change are forcing millions of people to face an inevitable string of disasters that challenge the future of development .

Groundwater and drains vital to both farmers and cities are drying up. The fire consumes the wooded areas and houses being built deep in the forests. Working outside in extreme heat becomes more dangerous and life without air conditioning becomes potentially fatal. While the summer monsoon rains have brought some relief to the southwest recently, 99.9 percent of Utah closed in the event of severe drought and reservoirs Less than half full.

Yet affordable housing is less than water in most parts of Utah, whose population grew 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it fastest growing state in the country. Cities in the West worry that cutting development to conserve water will worsen an affordability crisis stretching from Colorado to California.

In the small mountain town of Oakley, about an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, the spring that once pioneered watering their hay fields and people’s taps for decades has been cut short in this year’s severe drought . So city officials took drastic action to conserve their water: They stopped construction.

During the pandemic, the real estate market in their 1,500-person town boomed as remote workers flocked in from the West Coast and other homeowners staked the weekend’s ranch. But those newcomers need water—water that is fading away as a major drought dries up reservoirs and rivers in the West.

So this spring, Oakley planted construction suspension On new homes that will connect to the city’s water system. It is one of the first cities in the United States to deliberately halt development due to lack of water. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a hot, dry West.

“Why are we building houses if we don’t have enough water?” Wade Woolstenhulme, the mayor, who has defended the building moratorium over the past few weeks, in addition to herding horses and judging the rodeo. “The right thing to do to protect the people who are already here is to restrict those coming.”

Farmers and ranchers – who use 70 to 80 percent of all water – are letting their fields turn brown or selling cows and sheep they can no longer graze. Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah said one of his family’s farm fields had dried up.

“It’s cruel right now,” said Mr. Cox, who also asked the believers to pray for rain. “If we continue to grow at the rate we’re growing now and there’s another drought like this in 10 years, drinking water will have real effects. That’s what bothers me the most.”

For now, most places are trying to avoid the worst droughts through conservation rather than closing the spigot of development. State officials say there is still plenty of drinking water and there are no plans to stop people from moving in and building.

“A big consideration for many politicians is that they don’t want to be seen as a community that has insufficient resources,” said Katherine Jacobs, who directs the University of Arizona’s Center for Climate Adaptation Research.

In states across the region, western water providers have threatened $1,000 fine Or shut them down if they find customers flouting lawn-sprinkler restrictions or washing down the driveway. Governments are spending millions cut the grass, reusing wastewater, building new storage systems and recharging depleted aquifers – conservation measures have helped reduce water consumption in desert cities such as Las Vegas and Tucson, even as their populations have exploded . In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has sought 15 percent cut in water use – but so far they are largely voluntary.

But now many debates about the construction of the building have been destroyed. The water authority in Marin County, California, which is battling the lowest rainfall in 140 years assuming Whether to stop allowing new water hookups in homes.

Developers in the dry part of the desert between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have 100 years of water to gain approval to build new homes. But extensive groundwater pumping – mostly for agriculture – has left the area too little water for future development.

Many developers see the need to find new sources of water. “Water will and should be – as it relates to our arid Southwest – the limiting factor on growth,” said Spencer Kamps, vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. “If you can’t secure the water supply, there certainly shouldn’t be development.”

Late last month, the state’s water department announced it would not approve any applications from developers wanting to use groundwater within the area. The decision has raised concerns from local developers, who said these restrictions would make it harder to meet the needs of Arizona’s huge housing market.

In Utah, Oakley and the nearby agricultural town of Henefer are vowing not to grow until they can secure new, reliable sources of water through drilling or pumping – a costly and uncertain prospect.

“These cities are the canary in the coal mine,” said Paul D. Brooks, a professor of hydrology at the University of Utah. “They can’t count on going to the tap to turn on the water. Climate change is coming home right now, and it’s hitting us hard. “

In the 1800s, water was one of Oakley’s main draws for white settlers. The town is situated on the banks of the Weber River, and its waters and other mountain springs irrigate the fields and support the dairies that once lined the valley.

It is still a conservative farming community with Trump flags flying by 2020 and the mayor skeptical of human-caused climate change. Its beauty and location half an hour from the ski-town glitz of Park City make it a tempting bargain for out-of-stateers.

The Utah law allowed Oakley’s city council to pass only a six-month moratorium on the building, and the city is hoping it can tap into a new water source before deciding whether to reintroduce the moratorium or end it. Can do.

A project that would build 36 new homes on a tree-covered pasture near the city’s ice cream parlor has been stalled.

“You feel bad for the people who are saving up to build a house in Oakley,” said Mayor Mr. Woolstenhulme, pointing to the dusty fields that roam around town, usually littered with alfalfa. Are green. The distant mountains were blurred by the haze of wildfire. “I hate government violations in people’s lives, but it’s like having kids: Every once in a while you have to take action.”

Officials expect Oakley to spend $2 million in a water well 2,000 feet deep to access an unused aquifer.

But 30 miles to the north of Oakley, the dry irrigation ditches, ravaged brown hills and eco reservoir — 28 percent full and collapsed — is the town of Henefer, where the new building has been standing for three years. Right now, Henefer is trying to tap into new sources to provide water for landscaping and outdoor use—and to conserve its precious drinking water.

“The people of the city don’t like it,” Mayor K Richins said of the building moratorium. “I don’t like it.”

Experts say the smallest cities are particularly vulnerable. And few places in Utah are as small or dry as Echo, a freight railroad and a jumble of homes squeezed among stunning red-rock cliffs. Echo was already struggling to hang on after two cafes closed. Then this summer its spring-fed water supply was severely depleted.

Eco’s water managers are trucking drinking water from nearby cities. People worry that the water needed to put out a fire with a brush could overwhelm their tanks.

At their home, JJ Trussell and Wesley Winterhalter let their lawn turn yellow and rain sparingly. But some neighbors still let their sprinklers spray, and Mr Trussell worried that the small community his grandparents helped build was on the verge of drying up and blowing away.

“It is quite possible that we will lose our only source of water,” he said. “It would make it almost impossible to live here.”

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