September weather will make or break Utah’s water prospects; forecasters aren’t optimistic

Wet winter followed by a hot, dry summer has worsened fire danger and air pollution, while putting pressure on the Beehive state’s snowpack water reserves.

(AP Photo/Noah Berger) Firefighters battle a wildfire burning near Oroville, Calif., on Saturday, July 8, 2017. Fires across the West are part of the same weather conditions that are also threatening to deplete Utah’s water resources, in spite of the wet winter and plentiful snowpack.

Utah’s water reserves still are holding up thanks to last winter’s spectacular snowpack, but if September continues the more recent trend, the state could start losing ground.

Annual precipitation totals — meteorologists begin the water year in October — remain within normal ranges in Utah, according to the monthly Climate and Water Report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But that’s only due to ample snowpack that fell over the winter. The past few months have been brutally dry, especially in northern Utah, according to the report. If the current trajectory continues, many areas in Utah will end the water year with below-normal numbers. 

Soils in many areas are drier than they were at this point last year. And as snowfall begins at higher elevations in October, those thirsty soils amount to a water deficit that will have to be quenched before new snowpack becomes next year’s water supplies, the report says. 

The wet-winter, dry-summer weather pattern has already had immediate consequences for fire danger throughout the western U.S. by driving early-season plant growth, then drying it out and making it combustible. Conditions have prompted the National Weather Service to issue its ”red flag“ fire warning, and several large fires are raging outside the state.

“The result of these two ingredients combining in one season is what we are experiencing now, with a significant number of fires that on a whole have become much less controllable than they normally would be thanks to the abundance of fuel,” Jon Meyer, a climatologist with the Utah Climate Center, said in an email.

Meyer noted that some states “are having to perform wildfire triage” — having to deploy firefighters and related resources “on the fly.”

Current climate models suggest this kind of extreme weather — which also has significantly worsened air-quality conditions on the Wasatch Front due to smoke — could become more common in Utah and across the West in the coming decade, he said.

At the National Weather Service, meteorologist Glen Merrill said he sees little reason for optimism about Utah’s short-term water prospects. September will almost certainly bring more hot temperatures, Merrill said, with little chance of additional moisture.

“Precipitationwise, right now, it’s still hard to tell,” Merrill said. “We’ve been locked in this very dry pattern and we haven’t been able to tap into that monsoonal moisture now for over a month.”

The monsoon is a weather phenomenon that typically sucks moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and deposits it over the southwestern U.S., creating late-summer afternoon thundershowers. But the next storm in Utahs’ forecast, Merrill said, is instead a front blowing in from the California coast.

“We will be trending wetter this weekend, which is a good thing,” Merrill said. But, he added, “it doesn’t look like a long-term event.”