1988 proved to be a strange weather year along the Wasatch Front.
Summer was the hottest on record in northern Utah and the period from June to October was the driest five-month period in the area's history. That changed quickly in November, however, as many Wasatch Front areas received record snowfall for the month.Strong wind gusts recorded in mid-December were probably fueled by the collective sighs of relief from worried Utah water-watchers who had feared a continuation of drought conditions into 1989.
Overall, 1988 was a very warm and dry year, which meant a late start to the ski season (in the fall of 1987) and a summer full of valley grass fires and canyon wildfires. The most dramatic involved Emigration Canyon, where some 100 families were evacuated for most of a week. Only three months (January, September and December) recorded below normal temperatures while only two months (May and November) logged above normal precipitation.
Water, or the lack of it, was the big issue. The calendar year got off to a promising start with 16.3 inches of snow in January. While the water year, which began the previous October, still lagged behind normal, the January snow gave hope the drought cycle might be over.
The hope was short lived. While the snow depth was above average, the actual water content of the snow was below average. Still, things weren't entirely bleak, because the 1.06 inches of water was close to the 1.35-inch average.
But the full effects of the drought were soon to follow.
In February, the Salt Lake weather station recorded only 0.4 inches of snow compared to the normal of 9.6 inches. March was better at 6.1 inches, but was still below the 10.4-inch normal. April recorded a trace, well below the 4.8-inch average. A Memorial Day weekend snow storm saved the day in May, bringing the monthly total to 0.9 inches to edge over the normal of 0.6 inches.
The picture was not good heading into summer, with reservoirs in many areas far from full. Even more critical was the potential lack of carryover storage. Though reservoirs were low, there was expected to be sufficient water for 1988 needs. Conservation was being urged in many quarters to give the 1989 storage year a head start. That advice proved prophetic as June recorded .03 inches of rain, July .04, August .22, September .07, and October a very dry .01. The total for that period is normally 4.64 inches but the Wasatch Front received only .37 of an inch.
While the record snow in November helped, December was just barely above normal, which means a good series of storms in January, February and March will be needed to get things back to normal and ensure that full reservoirs will follow the spring runoff period.
The dry year provided one benefit, however. For the past three years, local governments have fought an ongoing battle with the Great Salt Lake to keep rising lake waters from inundating sewer treatment plants, landfills, the Salt Lake International Airport and some residential neighborhoods. Those efforts have proven successful as diking was provided to protect the plants, and a pumping project transferred water from the lake to a depression in the west desert area. As the warm weather persisted and the pumps churned, the level of the lake gradually decreased. Even parts of the Antelope Island causeway west of Syracuse in Davis County began to resurface as the water level dropped.
The dry spell has given hope that eventually water fowl refuges along the lake may return.