Drought in Utah Town Halts Growth

OAKLEY, Utah — The mountain spring that pioneers used to water their hayfields and now fills people’s taps flowed reliably into the old cowboy town of Oakley for decades. So when it dwindled to a trickle in this year’s scorching drought, officials took drastic action to preserve their water: They stopped building.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the real estate market in their 1,750-person city boomed as remote workers flocked in from the West Coast and second homeowners staked weekend ranches. But those newcomers need water — water that is vanishing as a megadrought dries up reservoirs and rivers across the West.

So this spring, Oakley, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s water system. It is one of the first towns in the United States to purposely stall growth for want of water in a new era of megadroughts. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a hotter, drier West.

“Why are we building houses if we don’t have enough water?” said Wade Woolstenhulme, the mayor, who in addition to raising horses and judging rodeos has spent the past few weeks defending the building moratorium. “The right thing to do to protect people who are already here is to restrict people coming in.”

Many developers see a need to find new sources of water. “Water will be and should be — as it relates to our arid Southwest — the limiting factor on growth,” said Spencer Kamps, the vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. “If you can’t secure water supply, obviously development shouldn’t happen.”

Late last month, the state water department announced that it would not approve any applications for developers seeking to use groundwater within the area. The decision has raised concerns from local developers, who said the restrictions would make it harder to meet the needs of Arizona’s voracious housing market.

In Utah, Oakley and the nearby farming town of Henefer are vowing not to grow until they can secure new, reliable sources of water through drilling or pumping — an expensive and uncertain prospect.

“These towns are canaries in the coal mine,” said Paul D. Brooks, a professor of hydrology at the University of Utah. “They can’t count to go to the tap and turn on the water. Climate change is coming home to roost right now, and it’s hitting us hard.”

In the 1800s, water was one of the main draws to Oakley for white settlers. The town sits beside the Weber River, and its water and other mountain springs irrigated farmland and supported dairies that once speckled the valley.

It is still a conservative farming community where tattered 2020 Trump flags flutter and the mayor is dubious of human-caused climate change. Its beauty and location a half-hour from the ski-town glitz of Park City have made it an attractive bargain for out-of-staters.

Experts say the smallest towns are especially vulnerable. And few places in Utah are as tiny or dry as Echo, a jumble of homes squeezed between a freight railroad and stunning red-rock cliffs. Echo was already struggling to hang on after the two cafes closed down. Then its spring-fed water supply hit critical lows this summer.

Echo’s water manager has been trucking in drinking water from nearby cities. People worry that the water needed to put out a single brush fire could deplete their tanks.

At their house, J.J. Trussell and Wesley Winterhalter have let their lawn go yellow and take showers sparingly. But some neighbors still let their sprinklers spray, and Mr. Trussell worried that the little community his grandparents helped build was on the brink of drying up and blowing away.

“It’s very possible we’ll lose our only source of water,” he said. “It would make living here almost impossible.”

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