Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, wants the caregivers of today’s water resources to manage new infrastructure projects in a “generational” way to protect the finite resource for decades to come.

To that end, on the same day water forecasters were celebrating a stellar month for precipitation in January for much of the state and reveling in this week’s storms, Adams unveiled SB211, or Generational Water Infrastructure Amendments.

“Utah is the best-managed state in the nation for a reason. Through unified action and forward-thinking policies, we can navigate toward a future where water sustains our legacy and fuels Utah’s continual success,” Adams said in a release Thursday.

“We need to be prudent in what water we use, mindful in how we preserve it and innovative in how we get more of it. We will work tirelessly to ensure that we continue putting Utahns first and that our grandkids inherit a Utah where the rivers still run, the fields remain fertile and the taps never run dry.”

The measure sets up Water District Water Development Council made up of the state’s four largest water districts with an eye to calculating future water demands, forecasting those generational needs and identifying viable water resources. It will make recommendations to the state Legislature where there is the most benefit.

In addition, the measure would establish a “Utah water agent” to serve as a liaison for the newly established council and to ensure the state’s generational water needs are met.

While far from breaking last year’s record snowpack, this water year is shaping up to perform well, with many reservoirs near capacity, soil moisture in good condition generally and individual watershed basins well above average.

In a Forecast and Water Supply Outlook meeting Thursday involving multiple entities, the statewide snow water equivalent stood at an average of 114% of normal, bolstered by January storms.

“It really was an amazing month for the state of Utah,” said Jordan Clayton, Utah Snow Survey supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Kathryn Watkins and Annabella Schweitz build an igloo in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Kathryn Watkins and Annabella Schweitz build an igloo by the Mill B trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Clayton noted that southwestern Utah had been the state’s “poster child” for not performing as well with measurable precipitation, but that changed this week, tremendously — with storms leaving it at 106% of average. And Clayton noted a report he issued just Wednesday is already obsolete given the amount of precipitation that has rolled into the state in the last 24 hours. The atmospheric rivers impacting the West have boosted snow water equivalent values by 20% — just in the last week, he added.

Roping in the Great Salt Lake

Clayton said given the Great Salt Lake’s condition and the public and scientific interest in how it will fare going forward, the NRCS is going to begin tracking streamflow from its tributaries from existing gauges and create a landing page on its website for people to learn more information.

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Early runoff forecasts tentatively call for the lake to rise by about 1.2 feet this year, but Clayton cautioned that could change given the degree of uncertainty of what may happen during the remainder of the snow accumulation season.

Hayden Mahan, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said the atmospheric rivers hitting Utah and much of the West this week have had a tremendous impact.

Utah’s watershed basins jumped in the triple figure range if you just look at it since Feb. 1 and daily rainfall records have been set at the agency’s Salt Lake City office near the Salt Lake International Airport.

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Thursday, after Utah Lake hit a contractually obligated level of “full,” water releases were made into the Jordan River to travel to the Great Salt Lake.

Last year’s record snowfall led to some clench-your-teeth moments among water managers, especially in the Weber-Ogden Basin, where Pineview Reservoir was nearly to the point of being overwhelmed by runoff and there was a threat of downstream flooding to make room for the additional water. That was averted.

Releases from some basins are already happening in the delicate dance to keep enough water for storage, but to make room for what is left to come in the following months.

Mahan said there will be unsettled weather for the next few days, a dry spell next week and then more storms may be on Utah’s doorstep in mid-to-late February.

No one expects a banner year like last year, but this water year is shaping up to deliver — so far.