Utah's water outlook a mix of good, bad news

Published: Wednesday, April 2 2014 4:25 p.m. MDT

Stacie Ashcraft waters the pansies at Glover Nursery in West Jordan Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The calendar may say "spring," but the string of storms delivering rain, hail, snow and brisk temperatures to the Wasatch Front is testing the patience of gardeners and golfers hoping for a blast of heat.

Utah water managers, hydrologists and those monitoring the drought that's been dogging the state the past two years say it would be best if Mother Nature kept her cool — and kept it a bit wet.

The Western States Spring Outlook released Wednesday by the Western Governors' Association notes that despite a healthy snowpack in the Colorado River Basin — which will provide some relief to Southern California and parts of the Southwest — the seasonal outlook looks bleak.

Overall, winter brought a 10 percent increase of water in the area of the West designated as "severe to exceptional" drought.

California experienced its third driest winter on record, and in New Mexico, farmers are preparing for a short irrigation season because they will only receive one-sixth of their full water allocations, according to the report.

Reservoir levels are near or below average for the western states, with particularly low storage levels in the Southwest. In New Mexico, despite near record September precipitation, three of the state's four largest reservoirs remain at 15 percent or less of storage capacity. In fact, the association's report notes that Montana remains the only western state out of 11 — including Utah — with reservoir levels above normal.

In Utah, numbers as of Monday show that Willard Bay is less than half full and other reservoirs are struggling with dismal storage levels as well.

Utah remains an example of extremes, with snowpack at slightly above average for the Bear River Basin — 105 percent — and dust dry in southwest Utah at 51 percent of normal.

Massive February storms and an intermittent stormy pattern throughout March helped to prop up a sagging snowpack throughout the Wasatch Front, leaving accumulations in the near normal range.

Those mounting snow totals give stream forecasters and water managers a bit of hope for the months ahead, although the regional outlook by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for temperatures across the West that will likely be above normal into June, with below normal precipitation.

The latest analysis put out by the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that in Utah and southwestern Colorado, dry soils and below normal stream flows led to the expansion of areas under moderate drought conditions.

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated portions of 11 drought-plagued states, including Utah, as primary disaster areas, freeing up assistance for farmers.

The association's report, an effort that draws on data provided by the NOAA, augments an initiative called the National Integrated Drought Information System.

In 2006, the Western Governors Association promoted the creation of the system and its subsequent launch to serve as a platform for better modeling, forecasting and coordination among the western states, said Jim Ogsbury, the association's executive director.

"The hallmark of WGA is really a fierce commitment of bipartisanship on issues that are timely and actionable and that are common to Western states," he said Wednesday. "Certainly drought hits all of those. Drought does not recognize state boundaries and it does not recognize political boundaries."

The drought information system was just reauthorized by Congress in March and a resolution adopted this year by the association calls for the creation of a Westwide "Water Data Exchange" in which states and the federal government share data with each other, and the public, for planning purposes in both private and public endeavors.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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