Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Drought grips western U.S., induces ag angst in Utah

Salt Lake City—I’ve been traveling in Utah, so have witnessed the drought gripping the West.  I’m no climate scientist, so I can’t say how far off normal conditions are.  Here is what I've seen and been told.

This was my first time in Salt Lake City (SLC), at least beyond the airport.  It’s a remarkable place.  Having visited the cedars of Lebanon and driven the Dead Sea highway in Jordan, I understand now why the Mormon pioneers of 1847 thought there was something divinely ordained about the cedar break at the Great Salt Lake.

Salt Lake City overlook from Desolation Trail in Millcreek Canyon
I've wanted to see the Great Salt Lake as long as I can remember, but especially since reading Terry Tempest Williams's natural history-classic Refuge in the 1990s.  The Great Salt Lake's salinity tops out at about 27%.  That's shy of the roughly 34% of the Dead Sea, but still enough to preclude any waterborne animal life bigger than a brine shrimp.

Great Salt Lake from Great Salt Lake State Park
 

Bison on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake; Salt Lake City in the distance
At the same time, from a contemporary, climate-wary perspective, one can’t help but look at SLC and think, “Maybe this shouldn’t be here” (a sentiment admittedly more apt with regard to desert cities to the west, such as Las Vegas).

Salt Lake City from atop the Utah Capitol Steps

I have seen warnings all around Utah not to park cars on dry grass, for fear of fire.  The rotatable Smoky-the-Bear fire danger signs are dialed up to “Extreme.”  Radio ads ask me to “slow the flow,” limiting my use of water.  Yesterday morning, June 24, it rained in SLC for the first time since May 23.  The local weather announcer gleefully reported 0.02” accumulation by 9:30 a.m. 

At Lake Powell, water levels are too low for the ferry to operate between Halls Crossing and Bullfrog.  Near Hite, Utah, in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a dusty red campground sits eerily vacant astride a dry riverbed where the Colorado River falls shy of Lake Powell’s north end.

In wetter times, a waterfront campsite at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
 

Dry riverbed between the Colorado River (at left) and Lake Powell
A signboard with tips to “Play It Safe in the Water,” picturing jubilant boaters, gives the campground a “Planet of the Apes” feel of abandoned human infrastructure.  We often think about climate change in terms of rising sea levels, but the opposite happens, too.

"Play It Safe in the Water"
The chatty clerk at the Hollow Mountain convenience store in Hanksville told me with a pained face that she has never seen it so dry, and, she added, her memory goes back to 1964.  She didn’t strike me as much older than 60, so I’m assuming she’s been in Utah all her life.

Hollow Mountain, Hanksville
An innkeeper in Escalante was less concerned.  He said that the drought is affecting agriculture, and that might be a welcome wake-up call to abate the cultivation of water-intensive crops that should not have been planted where they are anyway.  “Culinary water” has not been affected, he said; the area provides ample water for human settlement and tourism.
Settlers planted orchards at what is today Capitol Reef National Park.
The place that most stoked my concern and compassion was the Navajo Nation on Utah’s southeastern border.  At a Navajo-family-run inn and café in Mexican Hat, just above the border, a server told me that the area hasn’t seen a torrential rain for 10 years.  She seemed to me maybe 19, so I wonder whether she remembers.

The San Juan Inn overlooks the San Juan River, which also feeds Lake Powell.
Meanwhile, the local economy is reeling, as it seems Navajo Parks and Recreation will not be reopening touristic sites, such as Monument Valley Tribal Park, for another summer.  It’s been hard, the young server told me.  But we’ve always survived here, she said of the Navajo, so we’ll adapt.  I found the sentiment rousing, but couldn’t decide if it was wise or naïve.

Anyway, her 84-year-old grandmother makes a mean salsa verde enchilada with a Navajo-chili-style filling.

Salsa verde enchilada at The Juan Cafe, Mexican Hat
(All photos by RJ Peltz-Steele, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

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