The most recent drought statistics show northern Utah is in worse than bad shape and even an "average" winter won't bring things back to normal.
Conditions in the mountain drainage areas from the Wasatch Front north have reached -4.2 on a drought scale that peaks, for all practical purposes, at -4, said Gaylon L. Ashcroft, associate state climatologist.The Palmer Index lists .5 to -.5 as normal, with -3 to -3.9 indicating a severe drought, and extreme drought conditions rated at -4 and beyond.
Ashcroft said he used model precipitation conditions to make a Palmer Index forecast for the first time. The results indicate a normal winter would bring the drought index back to the neutral range, but not until April. "Even if we pull out of the drought by March we would still be past the time when the reservoirs would be filling," he said.
If winter precipitation is 70 percent of normal the drought index would worsen to between -5 or -5.4 by March.
Historical patterns show the dry weather pattern shouldn't continue through this winter, but water officials and businesses that rely on the winter snowpack are working now to cheat the drought, should it continue.
The Utah Board of Water Resources has allocated $75,000 for cloud-seeding programs in both northern and southern Utah. Board Director Larry Anderson said he will ask the Legislature for $200,000 next year for cloud seeding.
The Alta and Snowbird ski resorts have given Salt Lake City a total of $8,000 to help pay for the city's cloud-seeding program. Skiing-related businesses like hotels may also contribute to help ensure there is snow on the mountains this winter to attract out-of-state skiers, said Marie Nelson of the Wasatch Action Committee.
About 6,000 feet of water pipe has been installed amid 45 acres of ski runs at Brighton where $150,000 worth of snow-making machines are being installed so the ski resort, like several other area resorts with snow machines, can make sure it will have snow even if conditions are so dry there aren't any clouds to seed.
Cloudy skies and rainfall since the first week of November broke a five-month dry spell and has given officials some hope - but nothing they can bank on yet. "One day we're in a drought and the next day we have a rain storm and snow and everybody thinks the drought is over with, but we just don't know," said Anderson.
Municipalities are pumping more wells than usual and hoarding reservoir storage in case there isn't enough snow this winter to fill the reservoirs next spring. Pineview Reservoir was the only northern Utah reservoir that did not fill in 1987, but many lakes are as low as they were during the 1977 drought, Anderson said.
The water supply throughout the Weber Basin is "almost identical to what they had in 1977," he said.
Deer Creek is so low that Salt Lake City has been promised only a half allocation for next year and has announced it has no surplus Deer Creek water to sell to the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District. Despite the potential for shortage, Salt Lake City is still releasing water from Deer Creek to help meet federally required flows in the Provo River for the brown trout fishery.
Some of the water being released to preserve the fishery would likely have been sold next summer to the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District for distribution to its 19 customer agencies throughout the Salt Lake Valley.
"We do not see any surpluses until we are able to measure the amount we're going to get in terms of (spring) runoff," said LeRoy W. Hooton Jr., Salt Lake City's public works director. "That way they (the county) are not counting on any water this winter that isn't there."
Outdoor water use was restricted in some northern Utah communities during the summer. Many irrigators received only partial allotments and had to stop irrigating early in the season. Box Elder County was declared a federal disaster area because of drought.
While the National Weather Service puts the odds at 8-1 in favor of a normal winter, the odds haven't played in Utah's favor much this decade, Anderson said, agreeing with Ashcroft's prediction that the northern part of the state may need better-than-normal precipitation this winter to recover from the drought.
"The weather people tell us we've never had three dry years in a row. But we had never had three wet years in a row until this decade," Anderson said, referring to the 100-year storm and resulting floods in 1983.
Hooton said a worst-case scenario indicates Salt Lake City would have 90,000 acre-feet next spring from streams and Deer Creek storage. "Last year we supplied 105,000 acre-feet, so there's still a deficit. We could still maintain reasonable service," he said, "But we would be developing programs on the demand side in terms of managing demand through conservation or restrictions."
Municipalities put higher demands on wells when streams and other surface supplies start to dwindle. But without adequate recharge from streams and rainfall, the groundwater level begins to drop. Entire neighborhoods in Salt Lake County saw their wells dry up during the summer when the water level began to drop.
"Most people are saying we need 150 percent of average" winter precipitation to start the groundwater recharge and fill storage reservoirs, Hooton said. "Right now we're just speculating. We really won't have an answer until March or April."
Dry conditions this summer dealt a double whammy to irrigators, said Utah Agriculture Commissioner Cap Ferry. Farmers depend on occasional rainfall to supplement irrigation. This summer, many irrigators had to rely entirely on irrigation during a season when they had less than a full allocation of water.
The only advantage to the dry summer, if there was one, was that farmers didn't have to worry about hail damage, Ferry said.