I read this article about drought in Utah from my home office in Maine during a thunderstorm so severe it sent my dog under the bed in hiding. I had just finished grumbling to my husband about having watered the garden that morning, since the forecast only showed a 50% chance of rain, and I was feeling annoyed that I couldn’t eat dinner outside with my friend who was coming over after work. Reading about Utah’s “exceptional drought” put me in my place.
It also made me think about all the times I’ve heard people say that there’s a lot of “open space down there” after taking transcontinental flights. When there’s no water, that “open space” might as well be on the moon for all its habitability. And climate change is making dry places even less hospitable—2020 was the driest year on record in Utah, leading to record dry soils. It was also one of the hottest.
Due to the drought, Oakley, Utah, issued a ban on new development through November, at which point an extension will be considered based on water availability at the time. According to the 2020 U.S. Census data released in April, Utah was the fastest growing state over the past decade, with its population increasing by 18.4 percent (compared to the national average of 7.4 percent). Such rapid population growth comes with a price, especially in the desert.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in an interview with The New York Times, “If we continue to grow at the rate we’re growing now and have another drought like this in 10 years, there will be real drinking-water implications. That’s the thing that worries me the most.”
Cities and towns can impose fines for irrigating landscaping and filling swimming pools, and they have, but they can’t change the fact that people need drinking water to survive. And the more people who live in a municipality, the more people drawing on the local water works—it’s simple arithmetic.
What’s happening in Utah right now is just one more example of what happens in a region when the snowpack is diminished, when the rains don’t come, and when the aquifers empty out—scenarios that are playing out all around the world, most acutely in poor areas.
Human ingenuity can get us out of a lot of tight spots, but there’s no getting around our need for fresh water for survival. With bodies comprised of up to 60 percent water, the average person needs to consume 2–4 liters of water each day (including water that’s in the food we eat). While the Green Revolution enabled farmers to produce previously unimaginable crop yields, saving millions from starvation (albeit with plenty of dire environmental consequences), so far, there’s no affordable or reliable solution to water scarcity. Desalination is costly and only available near coasts, not to mention the harm it causes in the extraction of sea water and the depositing of the removed salt. Towing icebergs from the arctic is similarly fraught. Drilling deeper to find water can work in the short term, but only if there’s an aquifer underground, and depleting groundwater can cause dangerous subsidence that can swallow entire neighborhoods.
One technology that already exists for reducing water demand, however, is modern contraception. It allows women and couples to choose the family sizes that are right for them, which, on average, are almost always on the small side. Smaller families lead to slower population growth and less demand on natural resources, including fresh water. Combined with water-saving technologies, smart development (which, in the case of Utah right now means no development), and regionally appropriate landscaping, slower population growth can help ensure that everyone has access to the water they need to survive and thrive.