Can monsoon rains bring southwestern Utah out of the drought?

Utah ranchers and water managers are seeing relief from heavy rains this summer, but forecasters see more drought in the future.

St. George • Last August, the drought was so bad that Kane County rancher Dustin Cox was forced to sell 15 percent of his cattle, about 20 head, that he couldn’t afford to feed.

What a difference a year and summer monsoons can make. After weeks of rain, Cox said he now has plenty of water and forage for his cattle, and he is buying more cows to beef up his herd.

“It’s been an absolute godsend,” Cox said. “It’s almost back to the way it was when I was a kid when we always had summer monsoons. All the ranchers here have got some rain and some have gotten much more because that’s the nature of monsoons.”

Alex DeSmet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the storms that have blanketed much of Utah over the past month have brought welcomed relief but have been too hit and miss to end the drought.

“Monsoonal precipitation can be very spotty,” DeSmet said. “Over the last three days, for example, some portions of north central and southwest Iron County have received two inches of rain. And then you go just a few miles away, and there are areas that have received little or no rainfall.”

Statewide, just under 80% of Utah is in extreme drought or worse, which is down from nearly 82.5 percent a few weeks ago, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Still, the summer monsoons have southwest Utah’s drought trending in a positive direction. DeSmet said some portions of southwest Utah have received anywhere from half an inch to four inches of rain in August. Western Washington and Iron counties have received the most, between 200-300 % of normal in a non-drought year, while east Garfield and Kane counties have received slightly above-average rainfall.

A month ago, those four counties were in extreme drought and parts of Garfield County were in exceptional drought, which is the worst category, according to Laura Haskell, drought coordinator at the Utah Division of Water Resources.

“So [the monsoons] have helped some,” she said. “But almost 95% of our water comes from snowpack, and that’s what we need to recover from this drought. It takes about as long to get out of drought as it takes to get into it. We’ve been in drought for some [time], and it’s going to take a bit of time to get out of this.”

However, there are reasons for optimism.

Haskell said Gunlock Reservoir, 20 miles northwest of St. George, is currently at 54% of capacity, compared to 41% this time last year. Jackson Flats Reservoir in Kane County is at 60% of capacity, according to Mike Noel, longtime manager of the Kane County Water Conservancy District and a former state legislator.

“In the Bear Creek area, our wells … are now more than 100% of normal,” he added. “And the rain has helped out ranchers and the farming community because it has brought on our warm season grasses, which are critical for winter grazing.”

In neighboring Washington County, the outlook is not quite as positive. Water levels in Sand Hollow and Quail Creek reservoirs are down 11.6 % and 3.1%, respectively, from July totals.

“The rain has not added to our storage,” said Washington County Water Conservancy District spokesperson Karry Rathje. “Both Quail Creek and Sand Hollow reservoirs are off-stream reservoirs, and we’re not able to capture flood water because it would clog our pipeline with mud and debris and cause significant water quality issues.

“But the rain has decreased our municipal water demand,” she added. “Production at our water treatment plant has decreased about 5 to 10 million gallons over the last few weeks, which is great because residents are conserving water by turning off their irrigation systems.”

Monsoons have also served to slow the flow of water in the Cedar City area. As a result of the rainfall, residents in the area have been able to shut off their sprinklers for much of August.

“The folks in Cedar Valley have responded wonderfully,” said Paul Monroe, general manager of the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District. “Thanks to the rain, they have shut off their outside watering, and the pumping from our wells has declined by about 70% over the past month as a result.”

Monroe said the district was able to capture some of the monsoonal moisture in its recharge basins. Since the monsoon season began in mid-July, the district has put 17 million gallons of water into the aquifer through its recharge system.

However, the district has been unable to capture the runoff from Coal Creek and from the red hills above Cedar City because the water carries upward of 60% sediment that can clog up the district’s basins and also ruin farmers’ crops.

While thankful for all the monsoonal rains they have received, ranchers and water district officials are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for even more. The outlook for the remainder of the summer is essentially a coin toss, calling for a 50% chance of either above or below-average precipitation.

But the fall outlook looks less promising.

Haskell said forecasters expect there will be a third consecutive La Niña weather year beginning in the fall and carrying over until next winter.

“That hasn’t been good for Utah the last two years. So I don’t think the forecasts are positive, unfortunately,” the drought coordinator said.