OAKLEY, Utah – In the western United States, a summer of record drought, heat waves and mega-fires exacerbated by climate change is forcing millions of people to face an inevitable series of reshuffling disasters. question the future of growth.
Groundwater and vital waterways for farmers and cities are drying up. Fires devour homes built deeper into the wilderness and forests. The extreme heat makes working outdoors more dangerous and life without air conditioning potentially fatal. While the summer monsoon rains have recently brought some relief to the southwest, 99.9% of Utah is locked in severe drought conditions and the reservoirs are less than half full.
Yet cheap housing is still scarce than water in much of Utah, whose population grew 18% from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest growing state in the world. country. Cities across the west fear that stopping development to conserve water will only worsen an accessibility crisis that spans Colorado to California.
In the small mountain town of Oakley, about an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, the spring that pioneers once used to water their hay fields and fill people’s taps for decades has shrunk to a trickle. in the scorching drought of this year. City officials have therefore taken drastic measures to preserve their water: they have stopped building.
During the pandemic, the real estate market in their city of 1,500 people exploded as remote workers poured in from the west coast and second home owners staked out ranches on weekends. But these newcomers need water – water that disappears as a mega drought dries up reservoirs and rivers in the West.
So this spring, Oakley imposed a moratorium on the construction of new homes that would be connected to the city’s water system. It is one of the first cities in the United States to deliberately slow down growth due to a lack of water. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a warmer, drier West.
“Why do we build houses if we don’t have enough water? Said Wade Woolstenhulme, the mayor, who in addition to raising horses and judging rodeos, has spent the past few weeks defending the building moratorium. “The right thing to do to protect the people who are already here is to restrict the entry of people. “
Farmers and ranchers – who use 70 to 80 percent of all water – let their fields turn brown or sell cows and sheep they can no longer graze. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said all fields on the family farm, except one, had dried up.
“It’s just brutal right now,” said Mr. Cox, who also called on worshipers to pray for rain. “If we continue to grow at the current rate and experience another drought like this in 10 years, there will be real implications for drinking water. That’s what worries me the most. “
For now, most places are trying to avoid the worst of the drought through conservation rather than turning off the growth tap. State officials say there is still plenty of clean water and there are no plans to prevent people from moving in and building.
“An important consideration for many politicians is that they don’t want to be seen as an under-resourced community,” said Katharine Jacobs, who heads the University of Arizona’s Climate Adaptation Research Center.
In states in the region, Western water providers have threatened $ 1,000 fines or arrests if they find customers flouting restrictions on lawn sprinklers or flushing the driveway. Governments are spending millions to pull up grass, reuse wastewater, build new storage systems and recharge depleted aquifers – conservation measures that have helped desert cities like Las Vegas and Tucson reduce their water use even as their populations exploded. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for 15% reductions in water use, but so far these have been largely voluntary.
But the water now hangs over many construction debates. Water authorities in Marin County, California, which has the lowest rainfall in 140 years, are considering stopping allowing new water connections to homes.
Extreme weather conditions
Developers located in a dry desert expanse between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have access to 100 years of water to get permits to build new homes. But the extensive pumping of groundwater – mainly for agriculture – has left the region with little water for future development.
Many developers see the need to find new sources of water. “Water will and should be – as far as our arid southwest is concerned – the limiting factor for growth,” said Spencer Kamps, vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. “If you can’t guarantee the water supply, obviously development shouldn’t take place. “
At the end of last month, the state’s water department announced that it would not approve any applications for developers seeking to use groundwater in the region. The move raised concerns among local developers, who said the restrictions would make it more difficult to meet the needs of Arizona’s voracious housing market.
In Utah, Oakley and the nearby farming town of Henefer pledge not to expand until they can get reliable new water sources by drilling or pumping – a costly and uncertain prospect.
“These towns are canaries in the coal mine,” said Paul D. Brooks, professor of hydrology at the University of Utah. “They can’t count to go to the tap and 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 sits next to the Weber River, and its water and other mountain sources irrigated farmland and supported the dairies that once dotted the valley.
It’s still a conservative farming community where the ragged Trump flags of 2020 fly and the mayor doubts man-made climate change. Its beauty and location half an hour from the glitz of Park City Ski Resort made it a good deal for foreigners.
Utah law has allowed Oakley City Council to pass only a six-month moratorium on construction, and the city hopes it can tap into a new water source before deciding whether to reactivate the moratorium or to let it expire.
A project that would build up to 36 new homes on a tree-covered pasture near the town’s glacier is on hold.
“You feel bad for the people who saved up to build a house in Oakley,” said Mr Woolstenhulme, the mayor, as he drove through town pointing out the dusty fields that would normally be rich in alfalfa. The distant mountains were blurred by the haze of forest fires. “I hate government violations in people’s lives, but it’s like having children: every once in a while you have to get tough. “
Oakley plans to spend up to $ 2 million to drill a 2,000-foot-deep water well to reach what authorities hope is an untapped aquifer.
But 30 miles north of Oakley, past dry irrigation ditches, crumpled brown hills, and the Echo Reservoir – 28% full and down – is the town of Henefer, where new construction has been arrested for three years. Right now, Henefer is trying to tap into new sources to provide water for landscaping and outdoor use – and save its precious drinking water.
“The people of the city don’t like it,” Mayor Kay Richins said of the building moratorium. “I do not like it.”
Experts say smaller towns are particularly vulnerable. And few places in Utah are as small or dry as Echo, a jumble of homes squeezed between a freight railroad and stunning red rock cliffs. Echo was already having trouble hanging on after the two cafes closed. Then, its spring-fed water supply hit critical lows this summer.
Echo’s water manager transports drinking water by truck from neighboring towns. People fear that the water needed to put out a single bushfire could deplete their reservoirs.
At home, JJ Trussell and Wesley Winterhalter have let their lawns turn yellow and shower sparingly. But some neighbors still let their sprinklers spray, and Mr Trussell feared the small community his grandparents had helped build was about to dry up and fly away.
“It is very possible that we will lose our only source of water,” he said. “It would make life here almost impossible.”