Utah's dry winter makes water gurus uneasy about summer
Water gurus have taken a snapshot of Utah's snowpack and reservoirs, and the picture makes them uneasy.
A long wildfire season, tight supplies and even water restrictions are a possibility for this summer the very time when homes and ranches and industry rely most on the water that's been stored in Mother Nature's mountain snowpack and captured in mankind's valley reservoirs.
"It's kinda like watching a bad rerun," said the Central Utah Water Conservancy District's Tom Bruton, recalling how the current dry conditions flash back to those of last April. "And we'll have to endure it."
Randy Julander, snow survey supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted that his latest statewide assessment shows reservoirs almost 20 percent lower than last year, which was "every water manager's nightmare." Scant precipitation in the past six months, coupled with dry soils, skimpy snowpack and partly full reservoirs, means the outlook for the rest of the water year is grim.
"We're past where the trees are whistling the dogs over," he said, "but we're not to the point where all of us [teetotaling] Mormons are going to consider drinking beer instead of water."
Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service, describes the data without humor. He talks about April's climate trends in a YouTube video.
"Everything's brown," he said in an interview, talking about the south-facing slopes in lower-elevation mountains. "Warm and dry is what you worry about" looking forward into summer.
Key points from four new reports note:
• The snowpack is largely in the 60-70 percent of normal range, although the Beaver River drainage is at 90 percent of normal and there are pockets in the 80 percent range in the Lower Sevier, Escalante River, Raft River and Northeastern Uinta drainages.
• Even though the peak of the snow season ended only this week, the snowpack has already started dropping and fast.
• Precipitation last month was about half of normal levels, bringing the statewide average for the year to 77 percent of normal.
• Runoff is expected to come early this year and already has ended in the area of last year's Clay Springs Fire north of Delta.
• Streamflows are projected to be around 20 to 50 percent of normal.
• Reservoirs are at 65 percent of normal, compared with 86 percent this time last year, and they could be less than half full by the time the water year ends on Sept. 30.
McInerney pointed out that a high-pressure system set up house over Utah for much of the winter and thwarted most of the storms blowing in from the Northwest. Even with storm activity on the near horizon, it's impossible to forecast the summer trends, he said.
"The wetter it can be, the better it will be," he said.
Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands, said the wildfire season already has begun, thanks to dry conditions, especially in southern Utah. Last year, his agency logged 1,453 wildfires that burned nearly 500,000 acres.
"It's definitely going to mean fires maybe bigger fires and more fires," he said.
Already, there were eight fires last weekend, including a 360-acre fire in Uintah County.
The state fire agency, already focused on prevention, has issued an advisory to remind people to be alert about their campfires, debris fires and sparks from vehicles and firearms.
"The only thing we can do," said Curry, "is to warn people to be careful."
In the parched Moab area, Jason Kirks of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reported battling two fires last week, one set by a serial arsonist who has been at work for around five years.
"We are already in fire season right now," he said. "That's the way we look at it."
Julander said water restrictions are "a possibility" if the summer turns out to be hot and dry, as the National Climate Data Center is forecasting. That trend, combined with such factors as low stream flow, depleted reservoirs and dry soil, could mean a long, withering summer.
"When you look at the sum of all parts," he said, "the water supply picture, it really is grim."
As for the 1 million people who rely on the Central Utah Water Conservancy District for at least some of their water, there is every reason to believe that there will be water enough, Bruton said.
The Jordanelle and Strawberry reservoirs are about 80 percent full. Good planning by water managers in local districts plus conservation measures will go a long way in protecting Wasatch Front water users from any shortages, he said.
"It's a year," he said, "to be careful."