SALT LAKE CITY — The 2018 water year that ended Sunday was about anything but water for most of Utah.
"It was a miserable, horrible winter and it was a hot, dry, smoky summer," said Troy Brosten, a hydrologist and the acting data collection office supervisor with the Utah Snow Survey.
The survey, operated within the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, is finalizing its numbers this week, and most water watchers expect Utah Gov. Gary Herbert will then declare the entire state in emergency disaster due to drought.
"We certainly have the conditions to justify it," said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Last month, as required under state law, Utah leaders and weather experts convened an emergency meeting due to the drought that continues to spread across the state.
With the exception of 0.04 percent of the state's 54 million acres, Utah is in some category of drought — ranging from moderate to exceptional, the latter being the worst category. A little less than half the state is either in exceptional or severe drought as of late September, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.
"Water may be a renewable resource, but the last couple of winters what we have seen is that it is not renewing," Styler said.
During the 2018 snowpack accumulation season, the state saw just half the volume of snowpack it typically does.
Brian McInerney, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said the worst seasonal conditions combined to produce a dreary year for water supply.
"It was bad all the way around. There are a couple of ways to look at it: record low snowpack in central and southern Utah in the wintertime, below average runoff and then an incredibly hot and dry summer," he said.
Styler said the 2018 water year basically turned into the water year that wasn't.
Yuba Reservoir, where Styler depends on water for a family farm, began the irrigation season at 38 percent.
The reservoir in Juab and Sanpete counties can hold 236,000 acre-feet of water, Styler said.
"Right now it is down to 4 percent. We are going into the fall with reservoirs that are basically empty."
Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, cut short his service area's irrigation season beginning Monday, ending it two weeks early to bank an extra 6,000 acre-feet. Some individual irrigation companies within the district cut allotments of water by half earlier this year to last through the remaining irrigation season.
"There are local mountain streams on the Wasatch Front north of Salt Lake City that had some of the lowest yields in history," Flint said. "Farmington Creek didn't even peak. We also know that the last three months we are breaking records of the lowest precipitation in at least the last 20 years. What that has done is drive up the demand."
Hryum Reservoir south of Logan in Cache Valley is just 26 percent full and Echo Reservoir is in worse shape, at 13 percent full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Some reservoirs like Deer Creek and Jordanelle are holding on, at 56 percent and 68 percent full, respectively.
Across Flint's entire district, reservoirs on average are sitting at 51 percent.
"The good news is that we are going into next season at half full," he said.
Generally, Utah reservoirs had more carry-over this time last year than now.
McInerney said that hold over is what saved irrigators, for the most part, over the dry winter and searing dry summer.
"All that carry over we've used up. It's like money in the bank, and we didn't work that much this year, and now we have a lot less money in the bank," McInerney said.
"If we get an average year, we will be good."
What happens in the coming season for water is anyone's guess at this point, however.
But McInerney pointed out the importance of having a steady supply of average years, or even a couple months where snowfall is relentless and setting records.
From 2012 to 2017, the region had below average snowpack and runoff — setting up the West for its extreme drought, he said.17 comments on this story
But in December of 2016 and January 2017, blockbuster snowpack at 300 to 400 percent of average saved many areas.
"It was those two months that filled reservoirs across the West that saved those five years of drought," McInerney said.
He added that the changing climate and warming trends should have people perking up and paying attention.
"This is our future. We are playing with loaded dice."
One sprinkle of hope is that next week, the dry weather pattern is expected to shift and rain from Hurricane Rosa will move into the state.