SALT LAKE CITY — While this year's long, hot summer has already rung up a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars in drought-related impacts, another winter of light snowfall could take current water concerns and mitigation costs to unprecedented levels in the year ahead.
That was the general consensus of the Utah Drought Review and Reporting Committee on Wednesday. The meeting itself is a rare happening — triggered by a state statute that requires it to convene when drought conditions reach a critical level.
It requires reporting from numerous state agencies on impacts related to drought conditions. A Utah Department of Natural Resources spokesman said it was the first time in about a decade that circumstances required the committee to meet.
National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney, who participated in the meeting, said a "wild two months of weather" in late 2017, early 2018 where some areas of the state received precipitation at rates 300-400 percent above average, had replenished reservoirs sufficiently to carry over. But now, as one of the hottest summers on record comes to a close, the severity of a hot and dry weather pattern that goes back to 2012 could be setting the state up for a very challenging 2019.
McInerney said how the coming winter plays out will set the stage for the level of concerns focused on water, or the lack of it, in the year ahead.
"When we look at drought in Utah, we've had years that were much worse than this one," McInerney said. "The key is, we've had very dry weather from 2012 to 2016 and, really, 2017 except for two months. Now, we're at the end of this summer and we've used the majority of those stores in the reservoirs … and we're going into 2019 with low reservoirs and very hot, dry conditions at the start of fall."
Judy Watanabe, deputy director of Utah's Division of Emergency Management, said six counties have declared drought-related disasters and "continue to renew those declarations." Those counties are Wayne, Grand, Emery, San Juan, Box Elder and Carbon.
The declarations, Watanabe said, qualify the counties for some state assistance, though resources through the recovery account are limited.
Brian Cottam, Utah state forester and director of the state's Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands, said this year's fire season has, so far, accumulated some $80 million in costs related to fire suppression efforts, exceeding the typical year by $30 million. Cottam said while the total number of fires is only a little above average, the number of large fires is quite out of the norm.
And, he didn't equivocate about the cause of the big jump.
"Typically, on average we have two to three fires per year that cost the state $1 million or more," Cottam said. "This year, we've had 12 so far. That's four times normal. … It's the drought impact driving those numbers."
Cottam also noted that the number of acres burned in an average fire season, usually around 125,000, is almost double that right now, at 221,000. And while the yearly total for structures destroyed by wildfires is usually measured in a few dozens, this year has seen the destruction of 370 buildings, of which 86 were homes.
Other participants in the gathering presented a litany of costly impacts related to the extreme weather conditions. Those included the loss of grazing lands, unusable due to dry conditions, that have forced Utah cattle ranchers to decrease herds via auctions; the issuance of extra big game hunting tags to help mitigate wildlife impacts on decreased grazing resources; the necessity of moving endangered trout species to hatcheries as their native streambeds dry up; and a decrease in tourism and recreation, particularly in areas impacted by wildfires and at reservoirs where typical summertime activities have been impacted by low water levels.
Last year, reservoirs across the state were at 80 percent on average on Sept. 1. This year, the statewide average level on the same date stood at 65 percent.
While the dire and ongoing weather conditions necessitated Wednesday's drought-focused meeting, it's a situation that could be reversed dramatically by a change in the weather patterns that have dominated the past six years, according to McInerney. Or not.
"What's happening now doesn't mean things can't change," McInerney said. "We need a break in the high pressure pattern for an extended period of time. The key is, we need some rain. … Then we need a big snowpack and a cold, wet spring.
"We're expecting an El Niño year, which could be a positive for us. Any time you have a change in sea surface temperature, the desert southwest becomes wetter and cooler but, with a changing climate, all bets are off."
Correction: Photo captions on a previous version incorrectly reported that Rockport Reservoir was at 34 percent capacity as of Sept. 9. It was at 37 percent capacity.