Shooting for average: Bar is set as new water year gets underway

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2012 5:17 p.m. MDT

Water pours past the Gogin Drain on the surplus canal Monday, May 9, 2011.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah begins a new water year Monday and one weather observer is calling the past 365 days "everything we didn't want."

Randy Julander, a snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said he is glad Utah has the past dismal water year behind it. A "water year" measures the precipitation and snowfall from Oct. 1 until Sept. 30 the following year.

The 2012 water year has left Utah reservoirs filled to about 60 percent capacity, Julander said. Utah needs an average winter to prepare for the next summer, he said.

"In terms of snowpack, we could get by with an average year," Julander said. "An average snowpack would be more than sufficient to fill the majority of our reservoirs and give us some breathing room."

Last winter Utah accumulated between 50 and 70 percent of its average snowpack, but it was early spring warming that really put drought pressure on the state. 

"Warmer temperatures in March, April and May melted it all off early and left us with a long, dry summer," he said. "That's what we don't want. What we'd like to see is 100 percent to 130 percent of average snowpack and a melt-out that approaches normal, so that we'd have most of our snowmelt in May and June."

USDA and NRCS has counted Utah among eight states facing extreme drought, while 14 states, mostly in the Midwest, are in exceptional drought conditions.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in mid September that the Department of Agriculture is appropriating $11.8 million to help crop and livestock producers implement conservation methods that may mitigate drought damage. 

The funding comes through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and $972,600 was allotted to Utah. That amount follows $514,000 given to the state on Aug. 7.

The NRCS is encouraging producers and landowners to contact local offices to determine eligibility for assistance. A list of local offices is available on the USDA website.

Utah agriculture could face serious water concerns next summer if the coming winter is a repeat of last season, Julander said.

"If we have another bad year, we would go into the following fall probably closer to 20 percent of (reservoir) capacity," he said. "We would see some water shortages from that kind of an issue, probably early on."

Lauren Pearce, a spokeswoman for Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas, took a ride up to the reservoir's Padre Bay on Sunday. Pearce said fluctuating water levels change the character of the lake, with this year's dry summer exposing more beach for visitors.

Although a mild winter would impact some areas of Lake Powell, Pearce said the popular vacation spot should still have plenty of water for houseboats next summer

Too much moisture would fill the reservoirs but cause a different kind of problem, as Utah saw during the Oct. 2010 to Sept. 2011 water year, Julander said.

"We had phenomenal snowpack and runoff that just wouldn't quit," he said. "Farmers couldn't get out and work their fields on a timely basis, and a lot of people had too much water."

Julander said he is hoping for the best, but he suggested that Utahns start conserving now to be ready for whatever the winter may bring.

"Every drop you save today is one that you can use tomorrow," Julander cautioned. "We need to be very water wise and very frugal in how we deal with our water resource here."

E-mail: mromero@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @McKenzieRomero

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