Utah reservoirs run out of water, raising concerns about future water availability

Among the state’s busiest lakes, Pineview is only a quarter full, but you can still boat and fish there.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dropping water levels at Pineview Reservoir, seen here at Cemetery Point, reduced the amount of boat traffic at the popular destination in Ogden Valley. Utah's reservoirs have fallen to 52% capacity in the face of a historic drought. Pineview is now less than a quarter full as seen on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, and is expected to keep dropping.

It’s not just Lake Powell whose water levels are falling.

Lake elevations are plunging across the state, including popular boating and fishing destinations such as Pineview Reservoir outside Ogden, as a historic drought tighten its grip on the Intermountain West.

Utah is also experiencing what is shaping up to be its hottest summer on record, and residents’ access to water recreation has been dramatically constrained as rivers shrivel up and lakes are drawn down to provide water to thirsty cities and agricultural fields.

“Utah is currently relying on stored water from past years. Reservoirs are functioning as they were designed to,” said Candice Hasenyager, planning chief for the Utah Division of Water Resources. “They capture water in wet years to get us through the summer months and also during drought years. That being said, we are concerned with our reservoir levels and what it looks like going into the fall and into the next winter.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah's reservoirs have fallen to 52% capacity in the face of a historic drought. Pineview Reservoir, a popular recreation spot in Ogden Valley is now a quarter full as seen on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, and is expected to keep dropping.

Utah’s biggest reservoirs are now on average at 52% capacity and falling, according to the latest monthly water report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS.

“Utah’s reservoirs are very unlikely to see substantial gains until next spring’s runoff,” the report states. “April to July streamflow in Utah has been incredibly poor: roughly half of the gauge locations in the state reported flow volumes only 25% of normal or lower, and 16 hit new record lows.”

At just 24% full, Pineview, ordinarily Utah’s busiest lake for its size, is in the worst shape among northern Utah’s reservoirs.

While its dam is federally owned, the reservoir is jointly operated by the Ogden River Water Users Association and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, both of which announced early cutoffs for delivering secondary water — untreated water residential users put on outdoor landscaping. The Ogden River Water User Association is looking to end deliveries as soon as the last week in August, while continuing deliveries to peach growers to get them through harvest.

“We’re trying to make it until after the Labor Day weekend. I think we’ll be able to make that. People have really conserved,” said the association’s general manager Benjamin Quick. “There’s a lot of peach orchards along the Wasatch Front between North Ogden and Brigham City, and they’re the one crop that probably takes water the longest. We’re going to keep the water going to the peach orchards until Sept. 15.”

In good times, Pineview’s 137-foot-high dam holds up to 110,000 acre-feet of water.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clark Dalton packs multiple rods as he walks the steep receded banks of Pineview Reservoir on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Utah's reservoirs have fallen to 52% capacity in the face of a historic drought. Pineview Reservoir, a popular recreation spot in Ogden Valley is now a quarter full and is expected to keep dropping.

In 1992, Pineview was drawn down to just 1% capacity, but Quick does not anticipate the reservoir going nearly that low this year. Where exactly it bottoms out depends on decisions the two water providers make over the next few weeks. One thing users can count on is secondary water will not be available much longer.

“People’s turf will survive and their plants will survive. Climatologically, we get more precipitation [in late August],” Quick said. “The temperatures are quite a bit lower. You’ve got less evapotranspiration. We’re hoping that everybody will fare it just fine.”

Meanwhile, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has lifted fish catch limits on Pineview and two dozen other Utah reservoirs in anticipation of die-offs resulting from low water. So far, Pineview’s famed tiger muskie fishery is not in jeopardy, according to Randy Oplinger, who heads DWR’s sport fish program.

“There’s really not a lot of muskie there. They’re an apex predator,” Oplinger said. “Their density is much lower than you have for like a bluegill, that does help a little bit because we had less of those fish to really worry about.”

While you can keep up to 100 each of yellow perch or bluegill caught on Pineview, you still have to release any tiger muskie you are lucky enough to haul out of the water.

Several Utah reservoirs are even more depleted, although Pineview is the largest that is below 30%. Spanning 2,870 acres when full, the lake in Ogden Valley is about half its normal size and new parts are becoming hazardous for boating as levels decline. Two of its three boat ramps, Port and Cemetery Point, remain open and busy, but the number of boats allowed on the lake has dropped from 350 to 200.

“There is a ton more breach, but now we are getting down out of the sand and into the mud,” said Sean Harwood, the Ogden District ranger with the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which oversees most of Pineview’s recreation spots. The lake level is currently 40 vertical feet below its maximum elevation of 4,900 feet above sea level.

The Anderson Cove Campground remains busy, but its launch ramp is no longer usable. And the Middle Inlet day-use area on the lake’s east shore is so far from the water that not many people are using it.

Many of Utah’s most popular state parks are on reservoirs, where several have closed their boat ramps, such as the two at Willard Bay. In places where visitors can’t launch motor boats, officials have seen an interesting shift in use toward kayaks, paddleboards and other human-powered craft that can be launched from the shore, according to Devan Chavez, spokesman for the Utah Division of State Parks and Recreation.

This was apparent at Echo State Park, located on the reservoir by that name on the Weber River.

“Even with the boat ramp closed and everything .... it became like a paddle community,” Chavez said. With that reservoir only 17% full, Echo’s park facilities are now closed for construction, although its campground remains open.

According to the NRCS report, Utah’s reservoir storage was at 52% of capacity as of Aug. 1, a full 24 percentage points lower than last year at this time. The 42 reservoirs surveyed in the report account for 5.4 million acre-feet of storage, but were holding just 2.8 million. Reservoirs in the Sevier watershed, in both the upper and lower basins, were the hardest hit, averaging just 15% capacity. Gunnison Reservoir was completely empty and Piute Reservoir was just 8% full.

Several reservoirs are expected to be completely drained. These are the ones where catch limits have been raised, typically from four to eight for trout and up to 100 for bluegill, perch and other species.

The Duchesne and Provo basins were in the best shape, at 72% and 65%, respectively. The Weber Basin, which includes Pineview, was at 39% capacity.

Utah residents, meanwhile have responded well to the drought, reducing their use of water this summer, according to Hasenyager.

Salt Lake City is a case in point, where water use is down substantially. Usually this time of year, the city’s Public Utilities division delivers 170 million gallons a day, but this summer demand has often been as low as 100 million gallons, according to director Laura Briefer.

“That’s amazing,” Briefer said. “I haven’t seen that before.”

For the period July 1 to Aug. 6, Salt Lake City’s water use was down 15% over the same period from 2018 to 2020. That drop is even more remarkable because that period overlapped with the city’s hottest month on record.

“That reflects 3,000 acre-feet of savings,” Briefer said, “more than what’s stored in Mountain Dell Reservoir. That’s a pretty significant savings.”

Despite such conservation gains, Utah’s reservoirs are expected to continue dropping. The big monsoons two weeks ago helped slow the decline and increase the moisture in the state’s bone-dry soils, but Utah needs more than a few rain storms to replenish its reservoirs.

“It’s important to note that about 95% of [Utah’s] water comes from snowpack. So even if we get monsoons — we love them and we will take all the precipitation we can get — they typically don’t fill our reservoirs,” Hasenyager said. “It’s really the snowpack that we accumulate during the winter and the spring runoff that comes from it. We are estimating that we’re going to need at least a 150% of normal snowpack to help to refill some of our reservoirs.”

Nearly all of the state remains in “extreme” drought or worse, as with much of the West.

Next week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is expected to declare an official shortage in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin, triggering painful cuts in water deliveries to growers in Arizona, Nevada and California. This is because declining levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, ordinarily the nation’s two largest reservoirs, may soon threaten their respective dams’ ability to produce hydropower.

Now less than one third full despite supplemental releases from upstream reservoirs ordered to shore up its levels, Powell is struggling to to support water recreation as ramps are continuously being extended and marinas reconfigured in the face of ever changing water lines.