Forecasters say Utah might take a break from its ‘perennial drought’ in the coming year

Thanks in part to heavy storms in December and January and good water supplies, state may break its five-year dry spell.

As Oct. 1 marks the start of a new water season, there’s a lot to celebrate in Utah’s good fortune.

Cumulative precipitation totals across the state ended the year at or above normal, and Utah’s reservoirs are, on average, nearly three-quarters full, according to the monthly Utah Climate and Water Report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The mountains even had a little snow.

Taken together, hydrologists say that with a few exceptions in central and northeast Utah, water supplies should be more adequate in the near term, even if the state’s luck with weather conditions runs out.

“Even if we have a poor year next year,”said Randy Julander, Utah Snow Survey supervisor for the NRCS, “most of the reservoirs are still going to be in decent enough shape to get us through”

In fact, Julander said, he couldn’t remember the last time Utah’s reservoirs ended the water year so full — an important factor in a dry state like Utah, where natural water supplies tend to arrive intermittently.

“In the perennial drought that is Utah,” he said, “it buys us a little breathing room.”

That isn’t to say the skies delivered water consistently this year. September was rather wet — 160 percent of normal, on average statewide — and that helped Utah finish the year strong despite potential for a very different outcome. But most of this year’s moisture arrived in December and January, said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

“Those two months pulled us out of a five-year drought,” McInerney said. “When you look at the end of that period, we went from managing water to save as much as you can, to flood control.”

The rest of the year, despite some wetter interludes, saw extreme heat that set several new records.

McInerney expects to see more of the same next year. Global temperatures continue to rise, he said, and that’s going to add to the potential for the kind of large storms that hit Utah last winter.

“We are warming up all the time,” he said, “which means the atmosphere will hold more moisture.”

In the short term, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center anticipates northern Utah will see below-normal temperatures for the rest of the month, followed by warmer-than-normal temperatures across the state in November and December. Northern Utah may experience a little more precipitation than normal this fall.

Longer-term predictions from the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University foresee this coming winter being much like the last. Utah tends to cycle through wet and dry periods that span many years, Jon Meyer, a climatologist with the center, said in an email. Last year appears to have initiated a stormy cycle that the center expects to continue into 2018.

What’s less sure, Meyer said, is whether the bulk of next year’s precipitation will arrive in a few major storms, as Utah saw last winter, or in a series of smaller storms or even as rain during warm spells. As the state has warmed, Meyer said, snow has become less common, even though total precipitation has increased slightly.

But it’s still a little early to be prognosticating this winter’s weather, said Julander, who instead is sticking to basics.

“My forecast is we’re going to have snow, it’s going to be white, and it’s going to be cold,” he said. “And to date I’ve never been wrong.”