Despite rain, Utah's water outlook dreary

Published: Wednesday, May 7 2014 6:22 p.m. MDT

People walk in the rain in downtown Salt Lake City, Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Any chance the state could have a decent snowmelt and spring runoff all but evaporated under the heat of the April sun, leaving farmers to stare at another tough growing season in the months ahead.

The grim scenario of Utah's water outlook was released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which declared the runoff all but over in the southern half of the state, if it occurred at all.

"Right now, the runoff season is going much worse than we had anticipated," said Randy Julander, supervisor of the service's Utah Snow Survey. "Everything south of I-70 has already peaked. … In Monticello and anything on the Virgin (River), there was virtually no snowmelt at all. On the Sevier (River), stream flows are going to crash very quickly there."

The stormy weather that moved into northern Utah Wednesday to dust mountaintops with a bit of snow and soak the valleys is what Julander described as "too little, too late."

His monthly report spins a dreary tale of Utah's water situation, particularly in southwest Utah, where the Virgin River is at 29 percent of where it normally is for this time of year.

"They do have some reservoir storage they can dip into, and they are going to have to dip into it a lot," Julander said.

Across the state, the numbers show:

Statewide snowpack is 82 percent of average; most watersheds will melt out this month or by early June.

Storage in 46 of Utah's key irrigation reservoirs is at 66 percent of capacity, down 8 percent from where it was last year.

Lower elevation watersheds such as Parleys, Emigration, and even some mid-elevation basins such as American Fork and Payson have or are close to snow melt-out and are in "recession" flow.

Julander said the only bright spot in Utah's water outlook is at the Bear River and Weber basin, where there are still some "fairly decent" snowpacks.

"They're close to average," he said. "It is a far cry from 2011 when reservoirs filled and water managers were dumping their water because they knew there was runoff left to come."

Julander said the lackluster runoff has severe implications for water users across the state, particularly farmers.

"If you have reservoir storage, you are going to be in reasonable shape," he said. "If you are relying on stream flow, like many of our farmers do, it is going to be another really, really tough year."

While the agricultural community will bear the brunt of impacts inflicted in a scarce water year, cities likely will not pass the summer unscathed.

"That's not to say municipalities are not going to feel this as well," he said. "Most of them will go on water restrictions. It is a reality. As a water manager, you not only have to plan for this year, but next year as well."

American Fork already implemented outdoor watering restrictions for its irrigation or secondary water supply, pointing to supplies that are far below its historical receipt of water dating back to 1928.

Other secondary systems are expected to announce similar conservation measures this summer.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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