FARMINGTON — Benchland Water District is experiencing a drought double-whammy.
The district relies on mountain streams for much of its supply, but last winter’s dismal snowpack means those creeks are at a trickle. Meanwhile, a hot, dry summer has customers using more water than normal.
As a result, Benchland Water is starting to run dry, compelling the district to take action.
For the rest of the summer, customers are prohibited from watering over the weekends, from 8 a.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Monday. Those caught violating the order get walloped with a $50 fine on their first offense, $250 for the second offense and a complete shutoff of secondary water at the third offense.
Water users are also prohibited from watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays.
The restrictions apply to everyone using Benchland water, including schools, city parks and churches. Paul Hirst, Benchland Irrigation Water District trustee, said the district rolled out the new rules last weekend.
“I call it a ‘soft start.’ We did not have people out this weekend patrolling for violators,” he said. “We used half as much water over the weekend than we have previous weekends. So it worked ... we hope to achieve even more conservation in the coming weekends.”
The district provides untreated water for outdoor use for much of Farmington City. An analysis by the Standard-Examiner in 2017 found Benchland has just over 5,600 connections, nearly all of them residential.
Benchland provides around 30 million gallons of outdoor water each day. To put that figure in perspective, Farmington City delivers up to 3 million gallons of culinary (drinking) water to residents each day.
Around 60 percent of Benchland’s water comes from snow melting and flowing down the canyons, via Steed Creek, Farmington Creek and others. The district purchases the rest wholesale from Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.
This year, however, the creeks accounted for only 20 percent of the district’s supply.
By the end of last month, district managers realized that under current consumption levels, they’d be out of water by Sept. 15.
“We feared we might need as much as 1,000 (extra) acre-feet,” Hirst said.
An acre-foot is enough water to flood an area around the size of a football field a foot high.
The only way for Benchland to get more water is to buy it from Weber Basin at a rate of around $450 for each acre-foot.
“It almost equals the amount we’ve been charging our customers for a full season,” Hirst said. “The first and most prudent and judicial thing for us to do is push conservation.”
LETTING GO OF THE GREEN
The situation in Farmington could foreshadow a new normal for all water users in the Weber River Basin.
“We need to have a different mindset,” Hirst said. “We think green is beautiful and it is … but you don’t have to have a green lawn, especially when times are lean like this.”
A warming climate means hotter summers and less snowpack than water managers once counted on.
“It makes us nervous when we have such a horrible runoff season,” said Scott Paxman, assistant general manager for Weber Basin Water. “I think it’s gradually getting worse. It seems to be getting warmer and drier on the average.”
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The basin’s reservoirs are currently full, which means other water districts likely won’t introduce restrictions as tough as those in Farmington, at least this summer.
“Next year might be different,” Paxman said.
In this year’s runoff season, streams flowed at only 30 to 40 percent of normal, Paxman said. Unless the coming winter delivers plentiful snow, harsher restrictions seem inevitable next summer. That’s why Weber Basin, too, wants water users to let go of their lush lawns.
“Your lawn doesn’t have to be 100 percent green,” Paxman said. “Your irrigation system isn’t that efficient — you’d have to overwater significantly.”
Kelly Kopp, a professor at Utah State University’s Department of Plant, Soils and Climate, can vouch for splotchy lawns. Her specialty is turfgrass science.
“I think the most important thing people need to understand this time of year is the grasses we tend to grow on the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley are cool-season grasses,” she said. “That’s why right now, when it’s really hot and dry, they enter dormancy. They go an off-color, a yellowish-brownish.”
That dormancy period is no more harmful to turf than when a tree drops its leaves in the fall, Kopp said. When conditions get cooler, the grass will revive and regrow.
To keep lawns healthy and conserve water, Kopp recommends following the Utah Division of Water Resources’ weekly guide, which currently calls for three irrigations in all parts of the state. Those irrigations should only be 20 minutes for pop-up sprinklers or 40 minutes for rotor sprinklers.
To maximize that water, Kopp recommends breaking up the irrigation time into short bursts.
“You may be intending to irrigate for 15 minutes in total, but you could program to irrigate for 5 minutes, wait an hour, irrigate 5 minutes, wait an hour and so on. That way you’re avoiding runoff,” she said.
She advises returning grass clippings to the lawn while mowing, too. The Wasatch Front tends to have rocky, fast-draining soil. Clippings add organic material to the soil, which helps the lawn hold water.
More lawn and watering resources are available at the USU Extension’s Center for Water-efficient Landscaping, including Kopp’s research on different types of turf well-suited to Utah’s dry climate. Some types of bluegrass can go months without irrigation.
The extension is offering free classes to Benchland Water customers on maintaining landscapes during drought. Two classes are scheduled — one on Monday, July 16, and another on Wednesday, July 18. Both start at 6:30 p.m. at the USU Botanical Center in Kaysville.
USU’s plant experts will also host a live Facebook question-and-answer session at 10 a.m. on July 19 at facebook.com/usuextension.
More information on the restrictions and classes is available on Benchland Water District’s website.
Hirst said he hopes the class will help ease some of the pain of Benchland’s new irrigation restrictions.
“It is too bad. I don’t care for it at all,” he said. “But we have to do what we have to do.”