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Thirsty Utah gets rain after long dry spell

Published July 6, 2012 10:02 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The rain that fell Thursday was notable mostly for the streak it broke: 38 days without measurable precipitation at the Salt Lake City International Airport weather station.

While dry land farmers will no doubt celebrate, the moisture will do little to ease the drought conditions gripping Utah or to douse any wildfires that are still burning, said Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service (NWS) in Salt Lake City. Still, every little bit helps at this point, and any rain will at least slow the spread of fires.

"It's very nice, it's very welcome. But we need a lot of this. We need a month of this," said McInerney.

After last year's record-breaking wet spring, Utah's weather pattern has been dominated by high pressure that has resulted in scant precipitation. Above average temperatures that broke hundreds of records this spring and summer didn't help, he said. And drought forecasters say there is no relief in sight.

"The forecast indicates our drought conditions are going to persist or intensify," McInerney said in a weather briefing issued Tuesday.

Since the last rainfall on May 27, hundreds of thousands of acres and about 60 homes have been burned by wildfires. Steep slopes that have been burned bare of vegetation will be vulnerable to debris flows in a heavy thunderstorm, a risk that will continue for two to three years.

"It takes that long for vegetation to grow back," McInerney said.

Burn area emergency response (BAER) teams, comprised of botanists, soil scientists and hydrologists, will be visiting wildfire sites in the near future to analyze how much vegetation has been burned off; check for the presence of "hydrophobic" soil (so called because it is coated with chemicals in the wake of a fire that leaves soil slippery); and determine how much root structure remains to anchor hillsides.

Storms such as Thursday's don't pose much risk of debris flows on denuded slopes, McInerney said. It takes days of rain, followed by a sudden downpour, to send mud, rocks and branches tumbling down a mountainside.

The NWS described Thursday's rainfall amounts as light to moderate. But Robert Riberia, a graphic designer/Internet specialist at the Moab Information Center, said the area saw a "torrential downpour" for about 20 minutes.

"It's something we wanted for quite a while now," he said. As the rain began falling lightly, he and other staffers said, "This is it?" Then the downpour began.

As of 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the highest rainfall amounts in the Salt Lake Valley were reported in Holladay and Salt Lake City, where about half an inch fell, according to the NWS.

Elsewhere, Spanish Fork reported .38 inches; Alta, .52 inches; and Bountiful, .35 inches.

The short-term forecast calls for mostly sunny skies Friday in Salt Lake City and a high of 89 degrees. Skies should be clear Saturday and Sunday, with highs of around 93 both days. National Weather Service forecaster Mike Conger said there will still be enough moisture in the atmosphere for thunderstorms to form over mountains and possibly spread into valleys in northern Utah.

St. George should be sunny Friday with a high of 99, but there's a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms on Saturday, with a high of 103. Sunday will also be that warm, but under clear skies.

That 20 percent chance of showers will persist Friday through Sunday in Moab, where high temperatures will hover in the mid-90s.

Nate Carlisle contributed to this story