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Utah may be in for another dry spring, summer

Published March 7, 2013 12:43 pm

Water supply • As heaps of early snow vanish, a dry spring and summer seem inevitable.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's early winter snow bounty is already slipping away.

Snowpack withered last month in every basin, said Randy Julander, who monitors conditions for the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Meanwhile, the snow survey supervisor reported, spring and summer are shaping up to be as parched as last year, and the runoff looks iffy in drainages scarred by the Seeley and Clay Springs wildfires last summer.

"The more we look at it, the less probable it looks" that new snow will make up the ground lost over the past two months, said Julander. "If it turns dry, it could be another year like last year."

The agency measured precipitation ranging from 84 percent to 76 percent of normal in most of Utah at the end of February. The Lower Sevier River drainage (at 98 percent) and the Beaver River drainage (at 90 percent) were the state's healthiest.

Still, every basin lost snowpack, bringing the statewide average to 80 percent of normal.

"Bottom line is, we've had two super-dry months back to back," Julander said.

February had under half the normal mountain precipitation. Now reservoirs are filled to 69 percent of capacity, compared to 87 percent last year at this time. And when the melt does come, flows will be just 50 to 80 percent of normal.

"Overall, the water supply outlook is below average," Julander's monthly water supply report says. "Given the poor and declining current conditions, coupled with the forecast potential of a dry spring, water users are advised to prepare accordingly."

Julander's office also released an in-depth look this week at the lingering impacts of the Seeley and Clay Springs fires last summer. Both will probably affect runoff this year, melting snow earlier and potentially releasing more mudslides.

In mid-July, the Clay Springs fire north of Delta burned about 180,000 acres, scalding roots below the ground surface in some places because it was so hot. According to Julander's team, fire consumed nearly all the vegetation in the Oak Creek watershed and burned the weather-monitoring station at the site.

The Seeley fire in Emery County's Huntington Canyon, also in July, burned about 48,000 acres and scarred about half of the Huntington Creek watershed. Thunderstorms unleashed soil and debris from the steep mountainsides and caused mud flows — one of which closed State Highway 31 for nearly a week.

The blackened, heat-scarred soil, the loss of snow cover from trees, and the charcoal dust darkening the snow itself — each of these factors has had an impact on the snow's depth and durability. Julander's team predicts runoff could be a month or more early this spring.

Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon has led her community on a dogged search for around $1.6 million in emergency assistance. Ranchers, business people and homeowners still worry about slides and flooding caused by debris dams.

She's asked the Permanent Community Impact Board, Gov. Gary Herbert's office, Julander's agency and the Legislature for help. A legislative budget committee has placed at least some of the money on its priority funding list. Meanwhile, the city council has approved a plan to tap into as much as $100,000 from culinary water funding to help deal with the downstream impacts of the wildfire and the mudslides.

"It's absolutely frustrating, but I am not going to give up," Gordon said. "This is my town. These are my people. If I have to, I'll go down there with a shovel and start digging myself."

fahys@sltrib.com

Twitter: @ judyfutah