Why there’s not much room for optimism with Utah water supplies

Prepare for more dry lawns, restrictions

The question of whether the glass is half empty or half full depending on one’s perspective received a declarative answer during the latest monthly water supply briefing for Utah: It is definitely half empty and likely to get even emptier.

A bunch of grim-faced water experts — who jokingly threatened to turn to another kind of liquid because of the depressing numbers — plowed through various presentations Monday on the components that craft a picture of the water supply outlook, and the picture is pretty ugly.


  • Alta experienced its driest February on record.
  • January did not favor the state at all, with above normal temperatures and bone-dry conditions.
  • Jordanelle Reservoir is in a “tango” as to whether it will reach its lowest levels since it began to fill in the mid-1990s, and Jordanelle is meant to be a year-over-year carryover reservoir.
  • Only two years over a 30-year period from 1991 to 2020 were reservoirs lower — 1993 and 2004.

There is a storm forecast to brush by the state Tuesday into Wednesday, but Glen Merrill, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said it is not expected to do much for this water year’s accumulation of precipitation.

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Statewide, Utah is sitting at 88% of average for snowpack.

“It is not where we had hoped we would be by this time of year,” said Jordan Clayton, supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Rough projections put snowpack at 91% of average by April 1 — the typical end to the snowpack accumulation season — when water managers had desperately hoped for a banner year for snow.

“The month of January was about as bad as it gets,” Merrill said.

Concern over Utah’s drought high, snowpack diminishing during dry spell
A thin snowpack covers the mountains behind the University of Utah on Monday, March 14, 2022. Utah’s snowpack is lower than normal this year. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

One optimistic contrast to last year is that soil moisture conditions are improved, which means more of the runoff will end up in streams and rivers that feed reservoirs.

Following the latest storm this week, the remainder of March looks to be colder than normal — which is good — but drier than normal, which is not good.

Water providers across the state, sitting on basin snowpacks below what is average, had hoped a wet, cool spring would provide relief and keep the snowpack in the mountains longer and delay the irrigation season.

Long-range forecasts, however, predict April, May and June for Utah and much of the West will experience below average precipitation, and yes, warmer than average temperatures. Experts said Tuesday there’s only a 17% chance Utah would get above normal precipitation over that time period.

The Weber-Ogden basin area, one of the most challenged in the state when it comes to low snowpack, is already likely to invoke water reductions in deliveries.

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District board of trustees is meeting later this month to make a decision, and it is likely that other water providers will make similar cutbacks.

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The persistent “megadrought” spurred a flurry of political response in Utah and on a federal level.

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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox initiated a call for a water action plan that will unfold in stages and lawmakers devoted a historic amount of funding for water conservation, including $250 million for the metering of secondary or irrigation connections.

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More than $461 million in new investment happened in the water conservation arena this year.

“Water policy planning for the next generation cannot be considered in a silo, either geographically or jurisdictionally,” said Bart Forsyth, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. “Much of Utah shares the same water resources, so we have to work together from a statewide perspective.”

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