Automated irrigation systems are designed to both save time and conserve water.

If the coming winter produces a snowfall of historically "average" proportions, the state's water managers say our reservoirs will be replenished and the prospect of serious shortages will be averted.

But the question is, what exactly is "average" in the context of radical swings in weather patterns over the last decade? It's possible that abnormal patterns of precipitation is the new normal, and that means we must act as if there is no certainty in what to expect next.

And the action that makes the most sense is to re-focus efforts on conservation, which at least will serve as a hedge against a losing bet on a return to so-called normal.

Less than a decade has passed since we last faced the prospect of severe drought. Like the summer that just ended, the summers of 2003 and 2005 were unusually hot and dry. There were several public service and media-oriented campaigns aimed at encouraging people to conserve water, and they were remarkably effective.

The Jordan Valley water district, the state's largest wholesaler, reported that use was down 18 percent between 2000 and 2005, despite population increases. Monthly tracking of water use at the time showed a clear pattern of people using less, and the reductions occurred across the board, from large institutional users to individual households.

People re-landscaped their yards and installed more efficient faucets, toilets and sprinkling systems. A Deseret News poll taken at the time showed 95 percent of those questioned had changed water use habits as a result of the drought and conservation campaigns.

Then came the spring of 2011. Heavy and persistent rains caused widespread flooding and left reservoirs brimming. It was the wettest 90-day period in Utah history, and as a result, the fervor for conservation largely, and understandably, evaporated.

Now, reservoirs are about 60 percent full, and experts say a repeat of a dry winter and warm spring could take them down to 20 percent of capacity. And that would mean big trouble.

Farmers and ranchers are already more than a little nervous. The US Department of Agriculture has put Utah on a list of eight states facing extreme drought conditions. Fourteen states, mostly in the Midwest, are experiencing what the USDA calls "exceptional drought conditions."

Water managers in Utah are voicing concern, but have yet to ramp up serious conservation blitzes, mostly because fall and winter are low water-use seasons. Come next spring, the landscape will be clearer, and hopefully greener.

If not, having water conservation top of mind right now can't hurt, and may well put us ahead of the game should nature continue its feast-or-famine pattern of delivering water supplies that have been anything but normal.