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Lots of rain yields pain, added strain

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What a year it has been for people who invested in umbrellas.

The wetter, cooler-than-normal spring - on the heels of an El Nino winter - has changed life for many Utahns. Houses have been flooded, streets turned into rivers and weathermen turned into celebrities.But for people trying to raise gardens and for those who make their living off the land, frustration may seem like the only thing growing.

"It's driving us crazy. We can't get anything to grow," said Becky Pettingill of Pettingill's Fruit Farms in Box Elder County. Pettingill owns one of the most established fruit stands in northern Utah, but she said the cool, wet spring is giving her fits.

Meteorologist Bill Alder of the National Weather Service confirmed that the past few months have been abnormally cool and wet. In fact, many parts of Utah have received as much water in the first half of 1998 as they had the entire year before.

"This has been the second-wettest May on record for many areas in Utah," Alder said, especially in Davis County and northward.

Despite a few big showers, Salt Lake City hasn't gotten the volume of rain many people would think. Rather, Larry Dunn of the National Weather Service said, the frequency of the storms is what has made the month seem so wet.

"It's a matter of frequency, not the amount of rain that has fallen," Dunn said. "We've had more than the normal number of rainy days, so it feels a lot wetter than the numbers may indicate. Most of the showers haven't produced much."

Alder said Utahns can't blame El Nino for the long stretch of damp weather.

"We've just been in a rut of storm activity. There's really no one reason why. Just because it's wet doesn't mean there's a reason why it's wet. It just is."

For whatever reason, it's not good news for Pettingill.

"In our area, the hot, dry sun makes for better crops. Having it hot and dry acts kind of like a greenhouse," Pettingill said. "Whatever water we need we do through irrigation. In this area, we don't rely on rain, except to replenish the watershed.

"This is really not good growing weather."

Pettingill said even backyard gardeners may feel the impact. Astute gardeners may notice more root-rot, which occurs when seeds are planted early.

"Normally, seeds just sit in the ground and wait for ideal conditions before they'll grow," Pettingill said. "The longer they sit, the bigger the risk gets for the seed to start rotting. They need the sun and the heat."

Not all green thumbs are so glum.

LaRene Bautner, president of Millcreek Gardens, said many varieties of plants love the change in the weather. Utah plants are normally subject to more intense exposure to the sun, she said, with lower levels of humidity and moisture.

But with this year's climate, Bautner said, the plant roots are thickening up substantially and growing more profusely than usual.

"They're not having to stress to take care of the plant because it's not so hot. Right now, it's cool enough that the plants can continue to grow instead of just maintain."

Bautner said the main problem with gray skies and sweater weather is it discourages gardeners from doing the initial planting.

"It might drive the gardeners crazy, but that's no excuse. Get your galoshes on and get out there," she said.

But fair-weather gardeners may not have to wait long. Alder said the trend is bound to turn. Though the next week looks a little damp, he said the wet weather pattern is on its way out. Warmer weather is on the way . . . someday.

"Be patient. The latter part of this month looks like it should be drier and warmer," Alder said. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if we had summer this year after all."




Comparison 1997, 1998

Ogden Percent of normal

April 1997: 1.82 inches 71%

April 1998: 3.01 inches 117%

May 1997: 2.51 inches Normal

May 1998: 5.41 inches 219%


April 1997: 1.84 inches 112%

April 1998: 2.29 inches 139%

May 1997: 2.06 inches 99%

May 1998: 1.93 inches 92%


April 1997: 2.19 inches Normal

April 1998: 3.19 inches 148%

May 1997: 1.86 inches 74%

May 1998: 1.91 inches 77%

*Precipitation for June 1998 had already surpassed normal levels for the entire month as of June 9. At the Salt Lake International Airport, .93 inches is normal for June, and 1.19 inches have already fallen.