Sustainability is most commonly envisioned with three equal pillars of environmental, social, and economic health. Within my academic circles, colleagues and I envision sustainability with the environment and the basis within which we are an integral part of, and depend upon for our survival. Social and economic health are sub-systems overlying and dependent upon the environment as the foundation. As we move away from social isolation and into a time of national calls for unity and healing, we must also de-polarize our work for a healthy environment.
When we take a moment to consider it, equal access to clean water, clean air, open spaces, clean energy, and nutritious food most definitely spans the political spectrum. I am a sustainable communities professor, but that is by no means where my story begins. I grew up working in and around conventional agriculture. I’ve walked farmers’ fields analyzing the effectiveness of broad-spectrum pesticides. I’ve milked cows in a large-scale conventional dairy farm, gathered eggs in an industrial boiler operation, and corralled cattle on horseback. I’ve also worked as a naturalist in two national parks, helped start an outdoor recycling system at a university, and launched a permaculture initiative at Utah State to teach and learn from students and community members regarding ecological design. This is just a sample of my life story.
We are complex beings and need to see beyond the external package as it currently presents itself. As I look forward into the year ahead, helping to heal our environment and our social systems within are in the forefront of my mind. Should it be on your as well, maybe these suggestions will help you on your journey:
• Let go of the eco-guilt and eco-shaming. Even staunch environmentalists sometimes find themselves in fossil-fuel vehicles. Working towards a sustainable lifestyle is an ethic, not a rigid set of rules. You are working against larger systemic issues, so sometimes it’ll be hard, sometimes you will flounder, and you need to let it go. Think big picture and strive to improve your personal footprint while finding leverage points at the larger systems level for enacting positive change.
• Smile. Smile at complete strangers, even if they look like they aren’t “your people” and even if smiling with a mask on is over-exaggerated and you will grow your laugh lines around your eyes. It is amazing what a smile can do, especially if you are willing to tack on a compliment.
• Because we are part of nature, healing ourselves and each other must include interacting with and working to protect our environment regardless of who you voted for.
• Engage. Personally, I’m tired of feeling lonely and pretending I can excel at motherhood, work, and sustainable living all on my own. It takes a village and its time we all swallow our pride and reach out to our community of people here in Moab for support.
Wildfires, earthquakes, pandemic, and drought. It certainly sounds ominous for residents of Utah and Grand County. Let’s focus on the last event mentioned: drought. Drought is described as a period of time when an area or region experiences below normal precipitation. The lack of adequate precipitation, either rain or snow, can cause reduced soil moisture or groundwater, diminished stream flow, crop damage, and a general water shortage. In the western United States, drought has become an increasingly prevalent and damaging weather phenomenon with far-reaching consequences.
Utah is currently experiencing its worst drought period in at least 20 years (as reported by ABC 4 News) with conditions intensifying as below normal precipitation levels persist. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), a program created in partnership between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), approximately 69% of Utah is now under “exceptional drought conditions” according to the Utah Division of Water Resources – known as D4, a system ranking severity of drought categories with D4 being the most intense level. 93% of the state remains under severe (D2) conditions while 87% fall under extreme (D3) drought conditions. According to the Taylorsville (UT) Station, snowpack and seasonal precipitation totals are currently about half of the season normal (mean) values. This means that essentially no snowpack exists below altitudes of 7,000 to 8,000 feet, depending on exposure. Since no recent precipitation (as of December 2020) has occurred, soil moisture values remain at record low levels.
This casts a particularly bleak picture for Moabites. During the summer, Grand County (and even San Juan County) residents felt the consequences of reduced water availability when Ken’s Lake shrank to 400-acre feet (an acre-foot is equivalent to approximately 1,233.5 cubic feet or roughly 326,000 gallons), its lowest level in five years. 2020 proved to be one of Moab’s driest years with an abysmal monsoon season. During July, August, and September, Moab received a meager 0.4-inches of precipitation with August (along with April and October) refusing to release a single drop of rain.
Grand County, Utah currently falls under the NDMC’s drought categorization as D3, with a small corner in the Southeast classified as D4 (the LaSal Mountains area). It is important to note that the majority of groundwater recharge is supplied by snowpack accumulated on the La Sal Mountains. When snowpack is below normal levels, this directly results in below capacity storage and flows of local aquifers, streams, and other waterways that supply both culinary and irrigation water sources to Moab and surrounding areas. With the Colorado River system storage currently at 46% of its capacity (down from 52% this time last year), many water-based recreational activities may be negatively affected come spring and summer. Moab City Council Member Mike Duncan presented the results of several recent water studies, urging his fellow constituents to evaluate and implement a more water-conscious management system while conducting further groundwater recharge studies.
Drought is heavily influenced by climate change, irregular weather patterns, and influences of other cyclical weather patterns such as La Niña years. However, some aspects of severe to exceptional drought conditions are also exacerbated by human activities. Fortunately, there are both indoor and outdoor measures that can be taken to reduce your impact on strained water systems both before and during drought conditions. The below tips are from the Ready Campaign, a national public service campaign created by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FEMA) to educate and prepare the American people for potential natural and man-made disasters.
Indoor Water Conservation Tips
Never pour water down the drain when there may be another use for it. For example, use it to water your indoor plants or garden.
• Fix dripping faucets by replacing washers.
• Check all plumbing for leaks and have any leaks repaired by a plumber.
• Retrofit all household faucets by installing aerators with flow restrictors.
• Install an instant hot water heater on your sink.
• Insulate your water pipes to reduce heat loss and prevent them from rupturing during the cold season.
• Choose appliances and fixtures that are more energy and water efficient, such as low-flow or low-volume.
• Instead of using the garbage disposal, throw food in the garbage or start a compost pile to dispose it.
• Install a toilet displacement device to cut down on the amount of water needed to flush and avoid unnecessary flushing.
• Place a one-gallon plastic jug of water into the tank to displace toilet flow. Make sure it does not interfere with the operating parts.
• Take short showers instead of baths and avoid letting the water run while brushing your teeth, washing your face, or shaving.
• Place a bucket in the shower to catch excess water for watering plants.
• Operate automatic dishwashers and clothes washers only when they are fully loaded and select the appropriate wash size.
• Hand wash dishes by filling two containers—one with soapy water and the other with rinse water containing a small amount of chlorine bleach.
• Store drinking water in the refrigerator. Do not let the tap run while you are waiting for water to cool.
• Avoid wasting water waiting for it to get hot. Capture it for other uses such as plant watering or heat it on the stove or in a microwave.
• Avoid using running water to thaw meat or other frozen foods. Defrost food overnight in the refrigerator or use the defrost setting on your microwave.
Outdoor Water Conservation Tips
• Check your well pump periodically for leaks or broken components.
• Plant native and/or drought-tolerant grasses, ground covers, shrubs and trees. Once established, your plants won’t need as much watering. Group plants together based on similar water needs.
• Don’t buy water toys or install ornamental water features that require a constant stream of water.
• Choose a water-efficient irrigation system such as drip irrigation for your trees, shrubs and flowers - turn irrigation down in fall and off in winter. Water manually in winter only if needed.
• Use mulch around trees and plants to retain moisture in the soil. Mulch also helps control weeds that compete with plants for water.
• Use a commercial car wash that recycles water or if you wash your own car, use a shut-off nozzle that can be adjusted down to a fine spray on your hose.
• Avoid over watering your lawn and water only when needed and do not leave unattended.
• If your lawn does require watering, do so early in the morning or later in the evening, when temperatures are cooler and evaporation rates are lower.
• Check your sprinkler system frequently and adjust sprinklers so only your lawn is watered and not the house, sidewalk, or street.
• In extreme drought, allow lawns to die in favor of preserving trees and large shrubs.
According to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center’s Seasonal Drought Outlook for the first quarter of 2021, roughly 32.1% of the U.S. will continue to experience persistent drought. This includes the entirety of Utah. By taking the measures listed above, local residents and businesses can reduce their impact on stressed water reserves as drought conditions endure. Water is a vital commodity in our small, desert town and great care should be taken to restore, replenish, and conserve this dwindling resource.