Utah climate: Situation is 'doggone grim,' especially in south, for water
Last winter's scant snow pack, coupled with a dry hot spring, is already leading to more wildfires and Utah ranchers and farmers are nervous.
"It's pretty doggone grim, especially in southern Utah," said Randy Julander, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which on Wednesday issued its Utah Climate and Water Report for June. The report analyzes data on soil moisture and temperature, reservoir storage, stream flow and precipitation since the water year began on Oct. 1 to create a snapshot of the current water situation in Utah.
It's not a pretty picture.
"The common theme from north to south is that stream flow is exceptionally low and a runoff season that basically did not happen," the report said. "All streams are in recession and will go lower from current conditions through the remainder of the year. Last year at this time, runoff was just getting started."
Some areas of southern Utah have not seen measurable precipitation for more than two months, according to Julander. The situation is so dire in San Juan County that its commissioners are preparing to draft a letter asking the governor to declare a state of emergency.
"We are getting information from all the farmers and ranchers that their crops are burning up," said commissioner Bruce Adams.
Adams said a recent storm that blew through the area resulted in seven wildfires, which were quickly contained. "It's a pretty scary situation right now. I haven't seen these conditions for 10 years."
Julia Redd, whose family ranches and grows alfalfa in San Juan County, said that what little snow was left on the Abajo Mountains quickly melted. Reservoirs in the area are already at low levels.
"It's hot, dry and windy," said Redd, who moved to Monticello 36 years ago with her husband Hardison. "If there were a spark of gunfire or anything to set a spark, we would have major damage and fire...We need to get on our knees more and pray for rain."
While precipitation statewide is 65 to 70 percent of normal throughout Utah, much of it fell as rain and not snow. That means there was little if any mountain stream runoff, a challenge for recreational river runners and a potential disaster for ranchers or farmers whose operations are not supported by reservoirs.
"In terms of our runoff, we are in the bottom 10 percent of stream flow records," said Julander. "Our records go back to the 1920s and 30s, as do some of our snow courses...We just didn't get the snow."
The only thing saving Utah's water managers is the wet winter of 2010-11, which allowed many of them to store plenty of water in reservoirs.
"We did go into this season with outstanding reservoir storage but we've dropped about 10 percent over the last month," said Julander. "May is not a heavy irrigation month. In June, July and August, we could drop further than that."
He said reservoirs are going to take a beating this summer. That is creating anxiety among water experts who say a second winter of low snow pack could result in major water shortages next year.
Utah Department of Agriculture spokesman Larry Lewis said there is concern among livestock owners that the growing season is farther along this year because of the dry conditions. He just returned from the Tavaputs Ranch southeast of Price, where he said ranchers told him lower elevation grazing land was starting to dry up.
Brian Merrill of Salt Lake-based Western River Expeditions said low runoff on major recreational rivers such as the Colorado and Green is forcing the company to change its operations.
"The simplest way is to adjust the types of boats we use," he said. "We are using smaller boats and more paddle boats instead of the larger row boats. We are using fewer motorized boats and more inflatable kayaks. We are trying to adjust to the water levels because it is still fun."
Low water can actually make rapids bigger in some instances. For example, Merrill said Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River actually has larger rapids than last year, when high water washed them out.
"Unfortunately, sometimes people equate high water with being more exiting and fun," he said. "Camps are better at low water. They are bigger and there are more of them. And the water is warmer."