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Drought is nightmare for rural Utah

Urban areas not hit so hard; conservation efforts are helping

SHARE Drought is nightmare for rural Utah

Deseret Morning News graphic

It all depends on whose ox is dying of thirst.

Whether Utah's multiyear drought is an inconvenience or a huge economic threat depends on where you live and how you earn your living. For most urban residents, the sixth year of drought may not trigger many fears, while rural Utahns are seeing their nightmares come true.

"Reservoir storage is as low as it's been since the '70s, and we're very, very concerned," says Dennis Strong, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, "particularly for agriculture and people who rely on range for their livelihood."

But what about the others, people who live in the populous Wasatch Front cities?

"For the most part, culinary water supplies are pretty good," he said. Big reservoirs serve the most populous sections of the state. The Central Utah Project's Jordanelle Reservoir is coming online this year, he noted. It has a 70,000 acre-foot "drought supply" pool that has never been tapped.

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District has worked to save water carry-over for next year. And water conservation is helping urban areas to get through the drought.

"God bless the citizens of Utah because they have done a wonderful job," working hard to conserve water, he said. "Without conservation, we would be in a much worse situation."

Tom Pagano, water supply forecaster for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland, Ore., noted that stream flows are vital to the filling of reservoirs. The critical time for these flows in the spring and early summer, during and after the snowpack has melted.

In January, snow accumulations were well above average throughout Utah, leading for optimism that the snowmelt would be good. But then precipitation fell off.

"March was really quite exceptional in terms of how dry and how hot it was," he said. "Something like 58 percent of Utah's snow measurement sites set records for either snowpack drops or not gaining new snow."

That kind of thing was happening elsewhere in the West. But some states managed to recover, while Utah is still gripped by drought.

The drought had already dried out Utah's soil, and experts were expecting a large amount of the runoff to simply soak into the ground. But they were stunned to see not only that, but that the snow stopped falling and the snow melt happened too early.

"Basically, the climate really wrecked the snowpack," Pagano said.

Usually the peak stream flow is around this time of year. But in much of Utah, the peak has already happened.

Muddy Creek in Emery usually sees its top stream flow in June. "It looks like the peak of the year was May 11," said Pagano, "so almost a month early."

A large-scale indicator is Lake Powell, because streams and rivers from throughout the region converge in it. The latest forecast for inflow to Lake Powell during the period April-July is for 3.4 million acre. That is only 43 percent of average.

The likelihood is that Lake Powell will continue dropping, said Pagano. "How long it continues to drop is a really good question."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com