El Niño, the weather pattern some hoped would mean salvation for Utah’s parched landscapes, looks like it’s going to be a no-show.
The No Niño. That’s what Randy Julander, a hydrologist with the U.S. Agriculture Department dubs it. And he told the Utah Water Users Association on Tuesday that it’s anyone’s guess how the weather will shake out.
“There’s nothing I can say that will help you farm next year,” he said, after giving a wrap-up on Utah’s climate trends for the recent past and long-term future.
“Sitting here right now, there is nothing I can tell you about the climate that will help you farm this year, or in 10 years or in 30.”
Going into fall, high hopes were pinned on the notion that a weak El Niño would build into something stronger, snow enough to make up for last winter’s dismal snowpack, one of the poorest on record. Then, last week the national Climate Prediction Center said El Niño sputtered out, even though it has kept the El Niño Watch on the outside chance it pops back into action.
Meanwhile, an updated long-term forecast suggests drier-than-average conditions in much of the West, including Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Utah.
It is the last thing Utah farmers, ranchers and other weather watchers want to hear.
Much of the state spent most of the October-September water year in drought, said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
August was the hottest on record, and September was the 16th straight month of exceptional heat.
Although it did not break records for the most 95- and 100-degree days, the summer sweltered with double the average number of both, with 46 days 95 or over and 11 days of 100 or higher.
McInerney downplayed the importance of El Niño, especially for northern Utah where there is a significant impact only when the signal is strong.
However, he pointed to signs that other Pacific weather patterns are playing a role, as is global climate change.
Water users can expect the West to warm up faster than other parts of the world, as well as seeing more violent storms, less snow cover and more precipitation falling as rain than in times past, he said.
Exactly what role a changing climate might have in weather trends has yet to be seen, McInerney added. “We’re at the beginning of this.”
The short term is what most worries Brett Leamaster, reservoir manager of the Huntington-Cleveland Irrigation District and Huntington River Commissioner.
He noted that it will take years to clean up from this summer’s weather havoc, since dry weather made the mountain forests fodder for the 48,000-acre Seeley Fire in Huntington Canyon and mudslides left waterways jammed with logs and silt.
“Right now we’re really nervous,” he said, noting that moderate weather would help restore reservoirs and ease the drought. “A bad winter would raise hell for us.”
In Kamas, dairyman David Ure says another year like last year would mean high valleys would turn into dust bowls and the reservoirs that kept irrigators alive this year would be dry. He’s preparing for the worst-case scenario and is ready to plant the crop that has the lowest water requirement on his 150 acres of dryland fields.
“I have no choice,” he said.
Voneene Jorgensen, president of the water users group, says the water managers and ranchers who are part of her group will do as they always have: plan wisely.
“We’ll all be happier for a heavy snowpack,” she said, “so we can restore the reservoirs.”
Julander said he had high hopes for the early winter storm that came in overnight Tuesday and promised to stick around a few days.
“There’s just no predictability in it,” he said of the forecasts. “You’re left with hope and prayer.”
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