Deseret Morning News graphic

Abysmal may be the best description of the spring runoff, with no part of the state retaining more than 50 percent of the typical snowpack for this time of year.

For some places, "it's a new record-low snowpack," said Randy Julander, snow survey supervisor with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service in Salt Lake City.

In southeastern Utah and on the Sevier River runoff area, the snowpack now is as bad as in 1971. Elsewhere, it's as bad as it was in 1977, "a nasty, nasty year, and we'd rather forget it," Julander said.

In 2005, the Snotel measuring station at Midway Valley in Iron County — a tributary of the upper Sevier River — had 14 feet of snow around this time of the year, making it difficult to reach the station. "This year we just walked right over there," he said.

Most of Utah's drinking and agricultural water is impounded during the spring runoff. With little runoff, the state goes into drought-like conditions. Reservoirs may not all fill, and farmers may find themselves unable to plant as many crops as they'd like.

Already, four weeks early, the runoff has peaked in several places, and without raising streams and rivers by much, Julander said.

Only the Bear River basin tallied as much as 50 percent of the usual snowpack for this time of the year, he said during the meeting Monday in offices of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. By today, he predicted, that basin also would be below 50 percent.

Hardest-hit area is southeastern Utah, where only 2 percent of the typical April 9 snowpack is left.

"This is shades of 2004," he said, referring to the last bad drought year. "We're tanked, and it's heading south."

Not only was the winter snowpack skimpy this year, he said, but warm weather started the snowmelt earlier than usual. Further precipitation can't add to a snowpack that's gone.

Julander explained that some snow courses are bare at 8,000 feet elevation, and some are disappearing at 9,000 feet. That adds to the runoff rows, as water from higher snowpacks will have farther to run before reaching a stream, river or lake; the farther it travels, the more chance water will be absorbed in the ground or sublimated into the atmosphere.

"Camp Jackson (San Juan County) lost its entire snowpack," he said. But water scientists "didn't see a wrinkle of a steam flow response." The water had soaked in or evaporated before it reached streams.

The Bear Lake system needed a snow accumulation of 200 percent of normal during March in order to bring its snowpack back to typical levels before the runoff, he said. Instead of that scenario during March, usually the state's snowiest month, "we lost 30" percent.

"Three days from now, Hayden Fork (Duchesne County) at 9,000 feet will be melted out."

A lot of Utah's rivers have already peaked, he said. Julander advised the water users to keep water pouring into their reservoirs. He quipped, "If you aren't catching water now, there ain't going to be any later."

An official report by the service, posted on the Internet, says bluntly, "This March was a complete disaster for snowpacks."

The U.S. Drought Monitor, posted on the Internet at www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html, places almost the entire state in the category D-1, "Drought — Moderate." The exceptions are extreme southwestern and southeastern parts of the state, which are labeled D-2 for "Drought — Severe."

Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service office on North Temple, said that during March temperatures were 10 degrees to 15 degrees above normal for "almost all of the month."

In the area of precipitation, he said, it was "overall an abysmal March." More storms are expected in April, but they will be "way too little, way too late" to save the snowpack.

A relatively silvery lining to the picture is provided by a report on the status of Utah reservoirs, distributed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Provo Area Office.

They showed that most of the state's major reservoirs are well over half full, with some exceptions. The reason is that for the past two years, the runoff has been good, allowing reservoirs to inch up.

Those listed as less than 50 percent full are: Huntington North, at 15 percent of capacity with no inflow, and Upper Stillwater, at 5 percent full with 37 cubic feet per second inflow.

Some important reservoirs like Currant Creek, Deer Creek, East Canyon, Echo, Flaming Gorge, Hyrum, Newton, Rockport and Starvation are in the range of 86 percent to 99 percent full.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com