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Utah's water supply outlook: Grim

Published: Wednesday, March 6 2013 4:45 p.m. MST

Ron Johnson fly fishes on the Middle Provo River Tuesday, March 5, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — February snowfall failed to show up in the mountains of northern Utah and the snowpack accumulated so far this season actually diminished in most basins throughout the state.

"Snow accumulation just didn't happen," said Randy Julander, Utah Snow Survey supervisor with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. "In fact, we're going the wrong direction."

Although storm systems dumped a lot of snow in the valleys this past winter, the mountain snowpack across the state is just 80 percent of average, according to the agency's latest numbers. And with the passage of each dry day, Julander said it is just going to get worse.

"The national forecast is for a warm and dry spring. Should that happen, we may end up at 60 percent. ... The kicker in this is that we are far enough down at this point that it is very unlikely that we will make it back to average."

Water system managers throughout the state were hopeful that February would make up for a poor performing January and deliver big storms dropping bountiful amounts of snow.

Their hopes were unrealized, with precipitation for the month that was much below average for the state — just 46 percent of average.

"February kicked us in the teeth while we were lying on the ground," Julander said.

As a result, the anticipated water supply shortfalls are prompting system managers to already make operational changes to how they store water and users are being warned of pending shortages.

In southwestern Utah, snowpack is down 25 percent in the region that supplies water to the Virgin River.

"We expect the agricultural community will have to take shortages," said Corey Cram, associate general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

The district, which supplies water to the area's municipal and agricultural users, has already stopped releasing water from its highest elevation reservoir, Kolob, to the lower Quail Creek and Sand Hollow reservoirs.

Sand Hollow, which holds 16.3 billion gallons, is at 80 percent capacity while Quail Creek, which holds 13 billion gallons, is at 60 percent capacity. It’s unlikely either  reservoir will fill this year, according to the district, which now wants Kolob to fill as much as possible throughout the remainder of the runoff season to keep as much water in storage for the summer ahead.

Elsewhere in the state, particularly the northern region, the water supply outlook is more dismal.

Julander's report puts the snowpack in the Provo-Utah Lake-Jordan River basin at 80 percent, but some water user association managers believe that is overly optimistic.

"We are down significantly," said Jeff Budge, operations and engineering manager for the Provo River Water Users Association.

Budge said he made a presentation to the association's board of directors last week, warning that allotments of water shares could be curtailed by as much as 50 percent. While some of those shareholders have "holdover" water they didn't use last year, the outlook portends possible shortages.

The association's biggest shareholder is the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy and other end recipients include the Utah County cities of Orem and Provo, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District and irrigators who make use of the Provo Reservoir Canal.

Jeff Niermeyer, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, said reservoirs are designed to hold multiple years of stored water for instances like this year, so the time for panic is not at hand.

"Last year was pretty dry, but the year before that was banner," he said.

The district, he said, has a good carryover supply of water available and Salt Lake City also gets some of its water from the Central Utah Project.

"This year we are being very cautious and evaluating it. But we're not going to be running out of water unless it gets bone dry," Niermeyer said.

Julander's report notes that statewide, reservoir storage is at 69 percent capacity this year, compared to 87 percent at this same time in 2012.

"Later in the summer we could see some boat propellers hitting the rocks," Julander cautioned.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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