Utah just experienced its driest year since scientists have kept records

Since official weather records have been kept, Utah has never experienced a year with as little precipitation as it did in 2018 and only one previous year registered higher average temperatures.

That’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which compiles climate data and presents it in state-by-state maps that ranks states’ years for temperatures and precipitation dating back to 1895.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

For the water year that ended Sept. 30, Utah led the nation in terms of its relative dryness over the past 123 years. When it came to hot weather, the Beehive State trailed only neighbors Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. The impact can be seen in plunging levels of these states' reservoirs, disappearing streams and toxic algal blooms. Lake Powell is less than half full, as are many of Utah’s largest reservoirs.

“The desert Southwest getting hotter faster than the global average has to do with the lack of moisture in the desert,” said Brian McInerney, a Salt Lake City-based hydrologist with the National Weather Service. “You can assimilate this to someone who is exercising. If they drank enough water, they are perspiring. Then they quit sweating and go into heat prostration.”

The data released by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information show the Four Corners region is feeling the brunt of climate change, experiencing a double whammy of drought and heat.

“The weather pattern over the Western U.S. contributes to this because high pressure has been increasing since 1980. That is indicated by a lack of storms and this hot weather in the summer,” said McInerney. “It’s climate change. This has been going on in earnest since 1980. This is nothing new and now it’s hitting home. We waited too long to really get after this and now our window of opportunity to stop this is closing rapidly."

Scientists blame global warming trends on mounting accumulations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A new report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the environmental impacts are piling up faster than anticipated. If greenhouse-gas emissions continue at the present rate, the Earth will warm by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040, leading to even more intense drought in places and coastal cities getting swamped by rising sea levels.

For Utah, it could mean a dangerous reduction in mountain snowpacks and the demise of a world-class ski industry. What was consider a dry season in the past can be considered “normal” now.

“We have seen one good water year for every five bad ones,” said Josh Palmer, spokesman for the Utah Division of Water Resources. “One good year won’t get us out of the problem. From a climate standpoint, it’s more important than ever we conserve.”

Drought is currently taking its biggest toll in Utah’s southeastern corner where the Colorado Plateau is experiencing the driest conditions on record, prompting some counties to declare emergencies and to seek relief for agricultural producers.

"What we have noticed is the storms that are coming out of the Pacific Northwest, our bread and butter for water supply, are coming less frequently,” McInerney said, “but when they get here they are more intense.”

He noted that every month since 2012 has been relatively dry, except for December 2016 and January 2017 when snow and rain were three to four times normal.

“That carry-over saved us last summer,” McInerney said. “Our reservoir stores a year ago at this time were in the range of 80 to 90 percent full. Now they are about 40 percent full.”

Sixteen of the 49 major reservoirs tracked by the Utah Department of Natural Resources are below 20 percent and eight of those are below 5 percent. Gunnison and Piute reservoirs are virtually empty.

But last week, just a few days into the new water year, Utah’s precipitation went from nonexistent to almost nonstop thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Rosa, which pushed deep into the American Southwest.

“That energy moved the weather pattern we previously had out. It muscled it out of the way and that changed the dynamic of how storms work. The question is is that going to continue through the winter months,” McInerney said. “It is a nice change. We’ll see if it lasts.”