Water year ends on dry note but it's too early to panic
Dogged heat and scant snow and rain took a heavy toll on Utah's water supplies this year.
Although reservoirs started out full thanks to last year's super-wet conditions, they are now just two-thirds full as the 2011-12 water year comes to an end this week.
The numbers have Richard Bay, who oversees the water for about 600,000 people living in the Salt Lake Valley, thinking a lot about the future.
"The question is," said Bay, general manager and CEO of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, "is that a one-year-blip or the beginning of a trend?"
Though experience suggests to Bay that there are more dry years on the near-term horizon, forecasters agree it is too soon to tell for sure.
Randy Julander, who watches snowpack and reservoirs for the U.S. Agriculture Department, noted that the long-term forecasts say Utah is in for a weak El NiÃ±o weather pattern.
"Everything points to average weather," he said. "And that leaves a lot of uncertainty."
Looking back on 2012, water watchers point to high temperatures and high pressure combining to make the past 12 months challenging throughout the state. And the impacts could be felt on everything from backyard vegetable gardens in the cities to stunted crops on northwestern Utah ranches to withered forage, which drove wildlife from their summer haunts in the mountains. On Utah's western edge, man, beast and land suffered the driest year in more than a century of weather records.
A key factor was high temperatures that began in January and dug in throughout summer, which capped off with a record-hot August when the average temperature was 8.4 degrees above normal, according to Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
The heat turned the mountain snowpack into runoff weeks earlier than usual, he said.
"It was lame," he said of the spring melt. "There was hardly any runoff at all."
Especially when compared with the "monster" melt the year before that dragged on into the summer, McInerney noted, recalling how everyone was so worried back then that this year would bring lots of snow and rain.
Now all of the state is in moderate to extreme drought, he said.
"This is what you would expect for a dry year," he said of reservoir levels. "But what we don't want to do is to put these back to back to back. That would be problematic."
Julander, meanwhile, looks at the strong rains southern Utah received in July and August, and he sees an area that has rebounded a bit. Even with no more than average snow in the south, "We should be good" next year, he said, but northern areas will need a bit of extra moisture to catch up.
"This year we're in an average situation," he said. And even with reservoirs drawn down during the dry summer, "We're in pretty good shape."
Bay noted that this year the Jordan Valley Water District furnished 92,200 acre-feet of water more than 10 percent above the previous record set in 2007. He's urging customers to cut their lawn watering to once or twice weekly now that temperatures have fallen and look for other ways to curb wasting water. This is how they can help on a backyard level to manage water supplies.
In the water district offices, staff is doing the same on a larger scale. Water managers have eyes on Jordanelle and Deer Creek reservoirs, which are at 69 percent and 67 percent levels, respectively.
Don Paul, a retired wildlife biologist, said that drier creeks stress the fish in them. But fluctuating water levels can actually benefit migratory birds. "There's a little bit of yin and yang," he said.
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