Tourism is sucking Utah dry. Now it faces a choice – growth or survival?

Tourism is sucking Utah dry. Now it faces a choice - growth or survival?

Booming expansion to meet the demands of thousands of visitors every year is squeezing dwindling water supply.

It was a typically hot summer day in Utah’s Zion national park, where early-afternoon heat hovered near 100F, even in the shadows of the red peaks soaring overhead. But the extreme conditions did little to dissuade the throngs of tourists who trudged into the chalky brown waters of the Virgin River.

The parking lot at Zion – one of the United States’s busiest national parks – had been full since 8am. Many of the visitors were there to scramble into the shallows of the Virgin River for the ever-popular and Instagrammable Narrows hike.

Thousands of tourists descend on this waterway year after year, even as this region and others across the American west fall deeper into drought. Fueled by the climate crisis and the overuse of dwindling water resources, the drought threatens the safety and sustainability of the spectacular sights; at the same time, tourists and the industries that cater to them contribute to an unfolding crisis in the cherished lands that brought them there.


“The point is not just how out of touch tourists are when they come and visit,” says Martha Ham, an environmental advocate with non-profit Conserve Southwest Utah, noting the lush lawns in surrounding residential developments. “We are not facing [the fact] that we live in a desert or dealing with what our natural limits are,” she said. “It is a historic problem and it catches up with you. It is catching up with us here.”

ust beyond the park, the once-sleepy city of St George is rapidly expanding. Tucked into one of the hottest and driest cornersof south-west Utah, the gateway community is the fastest growing city in the US. Tourism has driven new residential growth and businesses in an area that could soon see water shortages – and it’s only expected to get worse.

Though there have been recent moves to try to curb consumption, Utah already has the highest per-capita water usage in the country. In Washington county – home to Zion and St George – usage was an alarming 285 gallons a person a day in 2020, more than double what those in Las Vegas, just hours to the south, use.

“We have had that infamous distinction for three decades,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of the non-profit Utah Rivers Council, noting that water managers have also kept water rates exceedingly low, so that residents and businesses in Utah also have the cheapest water in the country – which doesn’t help slow demand.

“There’s a cowboy-level of understanding of water that is not very sophisticated – and not very sustainable,” Frankel added.

While western states grapple over how to ration the rapidly declining water resources and how to secure a future in which the climate crisis is driving aridification and severe storms in this part of Utah, the churn of new construction hasn’t slowed. As new houses and resorts march deeper into the desert, officials are searching for new sources of water as it grows more scarce in the drought-stricken American west.

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This is an excerpt from an article by Gabrielle Canon originally published by The Guardian.

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