Thirsty northern Utah quenched with winter storms

Published: Sunday, Feb. 16 2014 8:00 p.m. MST

David Garriott of Holladay avoids a puddle after sledding with his family in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. Trailing behind is his son, Joshua. The water situation for Utah looked dismal last month, but storms over the past week have improved Utah's water supply.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The last eight days of storminess have lifted much of Utah out of an untenable dry spell, delivering a straw for the mountains to take a long, deep drink of much needed water.

"That storm we had last week was as big as we have seen in a decade," said Tage Flint, manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. "We are happy about that."

Prior to this crush of storminess that descended on the state Feb. 8, the Weber Basin drainage area was sitting at 70 percent of average for its snowpack. It is now hovering close to average.

"We were in dire straits," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. "We were looking at numbers that would put us at well below 50 percent of runoff."

What that would mean is low-flowing streams and rivers in the nation's second driest state — which saw a shortened irrigation season last year amid mandatory reductions to water deliveries throughout much of Utah.

This February storm, however, gave welcome respite and provides even out-of-practice optimists a chance to celebrate.

"It was impressive — like wringing out a wet sponge," McInerney said.

The Bear River drainage area, for example, is now at 105 percent of average, and picked up 23 percent of its seasonal accumulation in that eight days of storminess.

"That's how intense this storm was," McInerney said.

The storm boosted the Salt Lake area — or the Six Creeks drainage — to 81 percent of average and the Utah Lake drainage to 83 percent of average.

At the Lake Powell drainage system, the totals are at 109 percent.

McInerney said the storms over this season have been kind to snowpacks that feed the Colorado River, with the upper Green River now at 127 percent of average.

"They're doing really well."

As much as these storms have given pessimistic water managers a reason to smile, McInerney warned that the next six weeks are what will determine the attitude for the rest of the year.

"If we start melting in March, we will easily get down to 50 percent of our snowpack. We need it to stay cold and stormy."

Both men said the snowpack, ideally, needs to gain significant volume to boost reservoir storage. In Flint's district, reservoirs have limped through two abysmal years of depleted snowpack, leaving them at 35 percent of capacity. Willard Bay is half full, for example, and would need the water from Pineview Reservoir to put it at capacity.

"We need to get 120 percent of average to fill the reservoirs in the northern part of the state," McInerney said. "We have a ways to go, but it is looking better."

The latest forecast by the National Water and Climate Center predicts a limited water supply in many areas west of the Continental Divide.

Issued Friday by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, this year's second forecast said California, Nevada and Oregon are especially hard hit by the low water year.

In Utah, this latest round of wet weather completely skipped the southern portion of the state, which is sitting at a dismal 63 percent of average.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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