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Spring runoff looks promising

Water users chief warily expresses his optimism

SHARE Spring runoff looks promising

Carly Burton, the executive director of the Utah Water Users Association, said it all when he opened the meeting Wednesday: "This is the first time in four of five years we've become a little bit optimistic."

The meeting was the association's first 2005 runoff forecast session, which drew water managers, weather experts and hydrologists to the National Weather Service office, 2242 W. North Temple.

Nobody was willing to declare the six-year drought over, but prospects for its ending this year seemed good.

In the first 10 days of January, Utah snowfall was 302 percent of normal, statewide, said Ray Wilson of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Regional figures he provided for snow percentages since Jan. 1, compared with normal for the first 10 days of the year:

Southwestern Utah, where the flooding Santa Clara and Virgin Rivers have destroyed bridges and washed away homes, 677 percent of normal.

Escalante, 470 percent

Southeastern Utah, 430 percent

Sevier River basin, 363 percent

Beaver River, 180 percent

Dirty Devil River, 225 percent

Price-San Rafael rivers, 256 percent

Tooele Valley, 184 percent

Provo River-Utah Lake, 261 percent

Duchesne, 371 percent

Green River tributaries on the North Slope of the Uinta Mountains, 297 percent

Weber River, 209 percent

Bear River, 236 percent

Midway Valley, a snow course in the Sevier River basin above Cedar City and close to the Virgin River Basin, had an unbelievable 33.7 inches of water content in the snowpack.

"We have had a hard time believing the numbers at the site, so we ground-tested it twice," Wilson said. Figures from the automated Snowtel system corresponded with the ground truth.

Next week, the Conservation Service intends to return to Midway Valley to put an extension on the snow gauge, he said. "It's only a 12-footer" and may get buried in snow without the extension.

Whether flooding will occur in Cedar City depends on how the snowmelt proceeds, he told the Deseret Morning News. If it melts rapidly, there could be problems with Coal Creek, which runs through Cedar City.

Trial Lake, a tributary to Bear Lake, had 20.6 inches of snow water equivalent "and it's building rapidly," he said.

Some of the snowpack on the lower courses in southwestern Utah has been eroded by the heavy rainfall. But at higher elevations, the storm dropped snow. Snow courses above the Virgin River are at 117 percent of the average depth they reach on April 1, when the spring runoff starts.

"As of Jan. 1, we're more than double the snow moisture" from the same date in 2004, on a statewide average, Wilson added. "The ground's pretty wet. . . . We're going to have a pretty efficient runoff."

When soil moisture is low, as happened in 2004, much of the runoff soaks into the thirsty ground. But when the soil is wet, the ground becomes saturated and won't hold more water, and streams feed more efficiently into the reservoirs.

While all of these indications are helpful, National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney pointed out that the last two years, the snowpack looked good in January, but then it dissipated before the runoff.

"The question is: 'Is that going to happen again?' " he asked. "Have to wait and see."

Despite the bad precedents, several factors pointed to a change away from drought this year, according to McInerney. "We went through the summer without blazing heat," he said. The fall was cooler than usual, and precipitation has increased.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com