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Utah drought concerns Westminster community

Victoire Soumano, a junior geology student, studies submerged stromatolite structures in the Great Salt Lake July 1. The Great Salt Lake Institute was established in 2008 with support from Westminster College and an external grant, allowing the school to hire a coordinator, involve student employees and purchase equipment to conduct research, according to the GSLI Westminster webpage. Photo courtesy of Bonnie K. Baxter. 

Utah is in a state of emergency because of the current drought, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources Drought Frequently Asked Questions webpage. Some members of the Westminster College community said they notice the impacts of the drought.

“Climate change is a global problem with wide-reaching consequences,” said Environmental Center Communication Coordinator and junior biology major Harbor Larsen. “If you’ve noticed more grasshoppers on campus this year as I have, you have experienced an effect of this drought.”

As of March 17, Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency in response to the drought conditions through an Executive Order, according to the state-wide drought emergency.

Westminster College and the Environmental Center

Westminster College President Beth Dobkin said the college cut back on irrigation and waters at night. The college also plans to reduce future use of irrigation, according to Dobkin. 

“When we have opportunities to change some of the landscaping to more drought resistant xeriscape, that’s where we’re headed,” Dobkin said. 

Xeriscaping is a landscaping technique that uses drought-resistant plants and reduces the need for irrigation and watering.

Larsen said the Environmental Center planted native plants last year in front of Bassis Student Center as a first step to water conservation.

“Luckily the Westminster Environmental Center has not been directly affected by the drought, our garden is still growing and our volunteers and employees are hydrated,” Larsen said.

Larsen said he wants the campus to have drought resistant landscaping, which the Environmental Center “[…] will work tirelessly to implement.” 

Keaton Schrank, the Environmental Center coordinator, worked with landscaping on campus to make Westminster more drought resistant for her first project, according to Larsen.

Larsen said he hopes to release a zine through the Environmental Center on campus to inform people about the scientific aspect of the drought and teach water conservation techniques.

A boat floats in the low Pineview Reservoir Sept. 25. The drought in Utah has affected 2.8 million people, according to the Drought.gov current U.S. drought monitor conditions for Utah page. Photo courtesy of Madison Covington.

The Great Salt Lake Institute

Director of the Great Salt Lake Institute and biology professor, Bonnie K. Baxter said the Great Salt Lake is shrinking and in order to slow this process, more water needs to get to the lake. This can be done through giving water rights to the Great Salt Lake, according to Baxter.

“[The] Great Salt Lake is at the bottom of this watershed,” Baxter said. “For years, we humans have been diverting water for development and agriculture.”

Humans have already shrunk the lake even before meeting the warming temperatures and lower precipitation levels of climate change, according to Baxter. 

“The southwestern United States is experiencing a megadrought, which scientific studies predict will be long and dire,” Baxter said. 

Baxter said a low snowpack and an increase in temperatures is making the snowpack melt quickly.

“My advice is to conserve water, yes, but also become an activist,” Baxter said. “I am talking to my state representatives about the state of Great Salt Lake and the complexity of the problem. Only they can change water law in Utah.”

Jaimi Butler, Great Salt Lake Institute coordinator, walks on the dry stromatolite structures Sept. 27. The Great Salt Lake is shrinking and in order to stop it from shrinking, more water needs to get to the lake, according to Director of the Great Salt Lake Institute and biology professor, Bonnie K. Baxter. Photo courtesy of Bonnie K. Baxter

Ski and Snowboard Club Respond to Low Snowpack

Alliy Hansen, Westminster College ski and snowboard club member and junior environmental science major, is a skier who said she is concerned about this upcoming snow season because the Great Salt Lake levels impact the yearly snowfall.

“Snow is measured by the amount of water within the pack, snow water equivalent or SWE, and that gives us the amount of water that will be released when the snowpack melts,” Hansen said.

The average of 10 inches of snow is 1 inch of rain, according to The Farmer’s Almanac

Dagny Donohue, Westminster College ski and snowboard club president and senior biology major, said she is a passionate skier who is very worried about climate change causing temperature increases and precipitation pattern changes.

   “I think that this should be more of a concern because the greatest snow on earth is threatened by climate change,” Donohue said.

“Beyond changing lawn watering behavior, the most important thing readers could do about the drought is to think about where your water comes from,” said Harbor Larsen, Environmental Center Communication Coordinator and junior biology major. “Think about how the powder that you ski on this winter will become our drinking water.” 

Other students said they feel they are uneducated about the drought.

Tate Michener, Westminster College ski and snowboard club member and senior outdoor education and leadership major, said he is a snowboarder who decided not to get a snowboarding pass this year because of cost and time.

“To be honest [the drought] is not something that I am very aware [of] or knowledgeable about,” Michener said. “I have thoughts about the way that water is managed. Salt Lake Valley should be supported as a desert climate, and therefore I am a big supporter of [xeriscaping] and things of that nature that reduce water intake.”

Westminster Community Perspectives on Drought Executive Orders

On May 3, Cox issued another Executive Order, specifically stating to conserve water at state governmental entities, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources Drought Frequently Asked Questions webpage and the Executive Order.

“I believe major aspects of conserving water can be put into play within the state,” said Alliy Hansen, Westminster College ski and snowboard club member and junior environmental science major. “I don’t think we need to continuously water our grass to be green, when there are more impending dangers of water loss that are knocking at our door.”

Cox issued a third Executive Order on June 8, restricting state facility water usage and banning fireworks, according to the Utah Governor’s announcement and Executive Order.

“I believe we as citizens should begin coming together to find ways to improve the conservation habits of the state,” Hansen said. “We are stronger together with our voice for change. If we do not improve the conservation habits, we will be in danger of running out of water one day.”

The drought in Utah has affected 2.8 million people, according to the current U.S. drought monitor conditions for Utah page.

“Not only will we get less precipitation, but we will see a shift in type of precipitation-more rain versus snow,” said Bonnie K. Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute and biology professor.

Some students said they have noticed the drought conditions worsening over the past summer.

Harbor Larsen, Environmental Center communication coordinator and junior biology major, said they started noticing the hotter and drier conditions as well as the smoke-filled air from surrounding forests over the summer.

“For me it was a call to action: a call to better understand the weather systems around me in an effort to better understand climate change and its complex ramifications,” Larsen said.

Larsen said one of the effects of the drought he’s noticed is an increase in grasshoppers on campus this year. Droughts cause grasshoppers to travel further up the foothills to find food, according to Larsen. 

“Climate change is a global problem with wide-reaching consequences,” Larsen said.

On Oct. 28, the National Weather Service issued a drought information statement, according to the Drought Information Statement webpage. The statement mentioned that 16 reservoirs in Utah are lower than 20% of normal capacity during the week of Oct. 28, according to the website.

“With the lowering of lake levels, which have been trending lower and lower in recent years, it will decrease the lake effect that helps give Utah the amazing snow we all love,” Hansen said. “Snow is the state’s leading source of water, which is why it is so important that we look for solutions for our water use.”

1,029,655 people are impacted by drought in Salt Lake City county, according to the Drought Conditions for Salt Lake County page.

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Madison Covington is a senior studying communication at Westminster College. She loves vacationing with her family in Las Vegas and watching true crime documentaries. Madison can always be seen rocking a pair of Birkenstocks on campus.

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