Utah and the West may be growing so fast that they soon may surpass nature's ability to quench their thirst, the National Weather Service's top hydrology experts said Monday.
And while northern and western Utah, along with much of the West, face another year of drought, many eastern areas face floods - because heavy rains and snows there this year saturated soils and filled rivers."With drought in the West and floods in the East, on average we're just fine in the country," quipped Frank Richards with the Hydrometeorological Information Center of the National Weather Service as it released its annual spring flood potential and water supply outlook.
Even with somewhat greater precipitation in Utah and the West the past month, Richards said snow cover is still "much below average" along the Wasatch Front and in much of southern Utah.
The snow cover in the Uinta Mountains and much of eastern Utah is somewhat better relatively but is listed as "below average" instead of "much below average."
William J. Alder, meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service's Salt Lake City office, said "the snow cover everywhere in the state is only 80 percent of average or less." In northern Utah it is 72-83 percent of average, and in southern Utah, 60-85 percent. He said those numbers are higher now than they have been all year because of recent precipitation.
With that, Richards predicts drought in more than half of Utah, roughly in the area north of an imaginary line between St. George and Vernal. Of course, that's the part of the state with 90 percent of its population.
Of the portions of the state south of that imaginary line, the service predicts the top half will be "dry" but not in a drought. The bottom portion - or essentially Kane and San Juan counties - is expected to have about an average year.
"Eastern Utah is not the pits," Richards said. "But in the western part of Utah, there may stillbe some problems. A lot of these droughts are a long time in coming, and they're a long time in going."
Alder was even more pessimistic. "Basically, I think the whole state will be involved in drought," he said, because of sparse snow cover and continuing effects of years of dryness.
"Deer Creek Reservoir might fill, but many of the smaller ones won't." He added, "Stream flows will probably be 55 percent of average for the summer. . . . There's going to be in many areas of the state water restrictions and rationing. Farmers will be on the short end of the stick."
Richards told the national press gathered at the U.S. Commerce Department Building that while it has given much attention to the drought in California, greater problems exist elsewhere in the West.
"No question, the state of California has another drought. However, hydrologically speaking, the state of Nevada probably is in even worse shape. You don't hear as much about it because there are fewer people," Richards said.
"However, if you move up from Nevada into Oregon, southern Idaho and part of Utah, there are an awful lot of water shortages there. . . . So it's not just California that's having a drought; it's a broad area throughout the western United States."
Richards and weather service documents also said much of the West has been able to pass through the first four years of the drought fairly comfortably because reservoirs had been filled by all-time record precipitation just before that.
But he said those reservoirs have now been drawn down, and the West has lost most of its cushion to handle dry spells without shortages. In fact, Lake Powell and Lake Mead have been drawn down a record 17 million acre-feet in the past three years. That is roughly how much water all of California uses in six months.
Richards said continuing population growth in the West is exceeding nature's ability to meet its water demand in normal dry cycles - so shortages may be more common in the future and water management will become more important.
He said California could logically try to seek more use and possibly the ownership of Colorado River water now owned but unused by such states as Utah.
Utah will not be able to use large portions of its legal share of the Colorado River until the decades-behind-schedule Central Utah Project is completed.
While many rumors have circulated that California might try to pursue ownership of such unused rights through court or Congress, Hank Willems with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said such rumors appear with every dry spell. He expects current law and court decisions to easily protect Utah' share of the Colorado.
While Utah and the West worries about drought, virtually all of the states east of the Mississippi except New England are considered "flood prone" this spring. They have had above average rain that has soaked soils and filled rivers and streams.
"Further rain has nowhere to go but flood," Richards said.