SALT LAKE CITY — A tradition that spans more than 40 years kicks off Monday in St. George to offer water managers across the state the latest information and most sophisticated expertise to get through the dry months ahead.
Given the meager condition of this year's snowpack, those hundreds of water users attending the two-day event will need every bit of advice available to navigate another promised drought in Utah.
"This water year has been psychotic at best," said Randy Julander, supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey, which is part of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, detailing snowpack accumulations well below average. Coming off a winter that has shattered multiple records for being the least snowiest in Salt Lake City and the warmest as well, statewide snowpack accumulation is sitting at about 65 percent of where Utah typically should be, while reservoir storage is at 63 percent.
That was evident Friday, when researchers from Utah State University got a close look at the warm winter conditions six miles off-road at the T.W. Daniel Experimental Forest.
"We're looking at water in all its forms," said Scott Jones, from Utah State University's department of plants, soils and climate. "From the snowpack you see here about 80 percent of Utah's water comes from winter snowpack."
Twelve different towers span the 200-by-400 yard area. There are devices that measure wind, gasses and even solar radiation to look at how the snow is interacting with the climate around it. It gives researchers a better idea of what it all means for those in the valley floor.
"There's more rain, less snow during the winter," said Danny Barandiaran, a student in climate science. "That has big effects on the hydrology of the area."
Big enough that drought conditions could likely increase in the coming years. Barandiaran said while there are wet and dry cycles every few years, Utah is still on a warming trend overall.
Julander will be detailing the latest developments in "snow science" at one of the dozens of sessions being offered at the Utah Water Users Association's workshop and is also part of a presentation on the state's water outlook given the past six months of rain and snowfall.
Hundreds of people representing water districts, irrigation companies, nonprofits, local, state and federal government are expected to attend.
"This water users conference, as far as I know, is the biggest one, or one of the biggest ones anywhere in the United States," Julander said. "We are expecting 700 to 900 people all interested in the issues related to water here in the state of Utah."
This year's presentations include groundwater supplies in Utah, the California drought, nutrient pollution in the state's waters and even the use of drones on engineering projects.
"It is amazing that you can get that many people who have a direct connection to water and water-related issues in the same place and the same time," Julander said.
Carly Burton, executive director of the Utah Water Users Association, said that as the science and knowledge behind water has grown over the years, so has the attendance at the conference.
"We used to have this in Logan in February of all places and in the seventies it snowed so bad no one could come to it," he said. "We decided to move it to a place where we could be more certain about the conditions."
The conference comes at a crucial time for water management in Utah. State officials are pushing forward with plans for two controversial water development projects — the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Development Project — and nutrient pollution standards are requiring millions in upgrades at wastewater treatment facilities across the state.
An audit looking at growth projections being used to shape Utah's blueprint for management of new water sources is scheduled out in the next month, and members of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's science advisory team on water resources are continuing to craft a plan designed to carry the state through the challenges of the coming decades.
Against that backdrop, Utah and other states in the West are poised to enter a fourth consecutive year of drought, exacerbating tension along an already over-allocated Colorado River system and forcing managers to make wiser use of dwindling snowpacks.
"Water, at least in my mind, is the biggest, most limiting factor for growth in Utah," Burton said. "We want to have the latest information out there for water users to have to help them make better decisions."
Julander added that the conference comes at time when water "forecasters" have a pretty good idea of how the runoff will behave and what conditions will look like given what has already played out over the last six months.
The water year is slated to end April 1 — which is technically the end of the snowpack accumulation season — so the focus will shift from acquisition of water to its distribution.
"For us in the water supply and forecasting business, it is an amazing opportunity for us to reach almost everyone who has responsiblity for water management in the state."
Contributing: Mike Anderson
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