Northern Utah might have a big, tough friend, one fond of punching out many fellow states: the infamous El Nino.

Yes, El Nino! The flood-spewing terror of California, the blizzard-hurling thug that buried the Midwest under yards of snow, the hobgoblin that drenched the Southeast, El Nino just might turn out to be the good-natured buddy of farmers and culinary water systems in the northern part of this state.True, the spring snowpack is far heavier than normal for almost every river drainage throughout the state. (See accompanying chart.) But weather experts say we shouldn't gnaw our knuckles over that. With reasonable luck, the pleasant temperatures will continue, and the spring runoff will be orderly.

"We've got somewhat of a moderate concern, I would think right now . . . in Davis and Weber counties, just because that's where the heavier snowpack is," said William J. Alder, meteorologist in charge of the Salt Lake Forecast Center, National Weather Service. "And there's somewhat of a concern out at the south part of Tooele, that Settlement Canyon Reservoir is on the full side."

Jim Gowans, a member of the board of directors of the Settlement Canyon Irrigation Company, which draws water from the reservoir near Tooele in the Oquirrh Mountains, said Thursday that the reservoir doesn't look like it will spill. It will all depend on how the snow melts, he said, but "I don't think we'll have a problem."

Even though some river basins are reporting snowpacks at nearly twice the normal amount for this time of year, as Utah heads into a weekend, "we ought to have just ideal conditions for bringing some of this snow off," Alder said.

The warmer weather may allow snow to melt gradually, without causing floods.

"City Creek has quite a good flow this year," Alder said of one of the main streams that pours into Salt Lake City. "We're going to see some pretty good volumes in all the streams just because of the snowpack. I would think the critical period would be somewhere around the middle of May until the first part of June."

Even if the spring runoff is too fast for comfort, it will be better controlled than during the flood years of the early 1980s. Since then, cities have built debris basins that will catch the branches and rocks that otherwise might jam together and make a stream flood. They have moved rip-rap along stream banks to keep banks from eroding, and they've dredged to improve channel capacity.

"With all those things, we can handle a lot more water all along the (Wasatch) Front than we did back in the '80s," Alder said.

El Nino's biggest impact in northern Utah has been a greater frequency of storms. That means the region will not suffer from a lack of water this year. Meanwhile, the great ocean anomaly shows signs of breaking up.

"The waters have been extremely warm this past winter and they're basically starting to cool down some," Alder said.

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Additional Information

Snowpack - percent of normal

April 27 Jan 22

Utah Basins 1998 1998

1. Bear River 126% 121%

2. Weber/Ogden River 143 119

3. Provo/Utah L./Jordan R. 146 97

4. Tooele Vy/Vernon Crk 187 119

5. Green River 169 113

6. Duchesne River 126 96

7. Price/San Farael 133 99

8. Dirty Devil 140 60

9. Southeastern Utah 237 105

10. Sevier River 155 100

11. Escalante River 206 74

12. Virgin River 182 90

Statewide 147 107

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture