Surprise! Utah in decent water shape going into winter

Friday , November 07, 2014 - 4:42 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — It doesn’t seem to happen all that often, but the folks who concern themselves with how much water we receive here in the second-driest state in the U.S. are actually in a pretty good mood these days.

Despite a drier-and-warmer-than-normal October — the month saw just 20 percent of the normal precipitation — an amazingly wet summer had already set up Utah for a potentially good year, water-wise, in 2015.

When one looks at “the entire hydrologic situation,” according to Randy Julander, two positive statistics stand out: soil moisture, and reservoir water storage.

Julander, the Snow Survey supervisor for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Utah, says it’s important to have the soil as moist as possible going into winter. He compares it to a sponge sitting on your kitchen counter. If it’s dry, it’s going to take a lot of water to rehydrate it before any water starts seeping out or running off the surface. But if that sponge is already saturated with water, any additional moisture will run off and can be collected.

“If that sponge is already wet, you’re in great shape,” Julander said. “And our sponge is looking good. The soil moisture is really good.”

As for the state of of the state’s reservoirs, some may be half-empty but Julander chooses to see them as half-full.

“The reservoir water storage, while not great, is better than last year,” he said.

Reservoir storage in the state is actually higher than last year, at near 76 percent of capacity, according to the recently released November 2014 Utah Climate and Water Report. What’s more, current runoff is near or above average for non-regulated stream flows in many areas of Utah.

“Much above-average fall precipitation improved stream flow across the state substantially,” according to the monthly report prepared by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The report also notes: “Soil moisture going into the winter months is well above average across northern and central Utah and near normal in the south. This is good news for potential runoff next spring as soils will be primed for runoff should Utah get a decent snowpack season.”

What brought this near-embarrassment of water riches? Our wet, wet summer, according to Julander. In July, we saw 200 percent of normal precipitation. In August, we got another 200 percent of normal. And in September, that figure was 250 percent of normal.

“We had a really super-wet summer,” Julander said. “It was just pounding.”

That, he explains, allowed a lot of agricultural and other water users to end their water deliveries a little earlier this year, which further helped the reservoirs.

So then, has Utah seen a wetter summer than the one in 2014?

“I can’t remember one,” admits Julander, who’s been concerning himself with such things for the last 25 to 30 years.

Now, when he says he can’t remember a wetter summer, Julander is talking about three consecutive months of wet weather. The last three years have brought wet periods in July and August, but Julander says we haven’t seen three months in a row of such weather.

“I call it PFM,” he said. “Pure Freakin’ Magic.”

If Utah ends up with anywhere near an average snowpack this winter, she’ll be in great shape for next summer, according to Julander. A snow year that’s even just 90 percent of normal would do it.

Of course, another dry winter could quickly wipe that smile off the Snowpack Survey folks’ faces.

“If we end up April 1 with 50 percent of normal snowpack, that’d do it,” Julander said.

Julander said the national predictions for Utah are that the winter will be a little warmer than normal — but forecasts haven’t been able to pin down whether it will be wetter, drier, or normal. Still, on the bright side, Julander says Utah has now seen three years of drier-than-normal conditions.

“And it’s fairly rare to put together four years in a row of below-average conditions,” he said.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at

Sign up for e-mail news updates.