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A drought so dire that a Utah town pulled the plug on growth

Wade Woolstenhulme, mayor of Oakley, Utah, a town that has cut off any new development because it doesn’t have enough water to go around. Across the western US, a summer of record-breaking drought, heat waves, and megafires is forcing millions of people to confront an inescapable string of disasters that challenge the future of growth.
Wade Woolstenhulme, mayor of Oakley, Utah, a town that has cut off any new development because it doesn’t have enough water to go around. Across the western US, a summer of record-breaking drought, heat waves, and megafires is forcing millions of people to confront an inescapable string of disasters that challenge the future of growth.LINDSAY D'ADDATO/NYT

OAKLEY, Utah — Across the Western United States, a summer of record-breaking drought, heat waves, and megafires exacerbated by climate change is forcing millions of people to confront an inescapable string of disasters that challenge the future of growth.

Groundwater and streams vital to both farmers and cities are drying up. Fires devour houses being built deeper into wild regions and forests. While summer monsoon rains have brought some recent relief to the Southwest, 99.9 percent of Utah is locked in severe drought conditions and reservoirs are less than half full.

Yet cheap housing is even scarcer than water in much of Utah, whose population swelled by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest-growing state in country. Cities across the West worry that cutting off development to conserve water will only worsen an affordability crisis that stretches from Colorado to California.

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In the little mountain town of Oakley, about an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, the spring that pioneers once used to water their hayfields and filled people’s taps for decades dwindled to a trickle in this year’s scorching drought. So town officials took drastic action to preserve their water: They stopped building.

During the pandemic, the real estate market in their 1,500-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 drought dries up reservoirs and rivers across the West.

So this spring, Oakley 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. 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.”

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Farmers and ranchers — who use about three-quarters of all water — are letting their fields go brown or selling off cows and sheep they can no longer graze. Governor Spencer Cox of Utah said all but one of the fields on his family’s farm had dried up.

“It’s just brutal right now,” said Cox, who also asked the faithful to pray for rain. “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.”

For now, most places are trying to stave off the worst of the drought through conservation instead of shutting off the spigot of growth. State officials say there is still plenty of drinking water and no plans to stop people from moving in and building.

“A huge consideration for many politicians is that they don’t want to be viewed as a community that has inadequate resources,” said Katharine Jacobs, who directs the University of Arizona’s climate adaptation research center.

In states across the region, Western water providers have threatened $1,000 fines or shut-offs if they find customers flouting lawn-sprinkler restrictions or rinsing off the driveway. Governments are spending millions to rip up grass, reuse wastewater, build new storage systems and recharge depleted aquifers — conservation measures that have helped desert cities like Las Vegas and Tucson reduce water consumption even as their populations exploded. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has called for 15 percent cuts in water use — but so far those are largely voluntary.

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But water now looms over many debates about building. Water authorities in Marin County, California, which is contending with the lowest rainfall in 140 years, are considering whether to stop allowing new water hookups to homes.

Developers in a dry stretch of desert sprawl between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have access to 100 years’ worth of water to get approvals to build homes. But extensive groundwater pumping — mostly for agriculture — has left the area with little water for future development.

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.”

Utah law allowed Oakley’s City Council to pass only a six-month moratorium on building, and the city is hoping it can tap into a new water source before deciding whether to re-up the moratorium or let it expire.

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“You feel bad for the people who’ve been saving up to build a house in Oakley,” Woolstenhulme, the mayor, said as he drove around town pointing out the dusty fields that would normally be lush with alfalfa. The distant mountains were blurred by wildfire haze. “I hate government infringement in people’s lives, but it’s like having kids: Every once in a while you got to crack down.”