Quit asking if the drought is over — it isn't

Monday , May 18, 2015 - 3:47 PM

If Randy Julander had a quarter for every time some pesky reporter called to ask if Utah’s drought is finally over, one thing is abundantly clear. He would no longer have to rely on making a living fielding pesky reporters’ calls.

With the heavy rains in Northern Utah over the last week or so, it’s the question everybody has been asking: “Is the drought over?”

So then? Is it?

Julander just laughs.

“Drought is one of those persistent things,” says the snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, in Salt Lake City. 

Not that you’d have known this, judging from our recent weather patterns. I mean, when you’ve spent the better part of the last two weekends staring out the window at the pouring rain, it’s hard to believe anybody could still be talking about water restrictions coming this summer. It would seem the average hydrologist is in grave danger of becoming The Little Boy Who Cried Drought.

But Julander explains it this way: Think of it like your personal financial situation.

“If your cash flow was cut by 50 percent for four years, and then it suddenly went back up to 100 percent for a month, how would you feel?” he asks. “You’d be grateful for that month, right?”

But it wouldn’t come anywhere near to getting you out of your current financial predicament.

“Still, it’s a good start,” he concedes. “We’ll take this one, and every other one that comes our way. Even a blind squirrel gets an acorn every once in awhile, and this has been a nice acorn.”

In order to understand the significance — or lack thereof — of recent storms, you need to know the basic principles of precipitation, according to Julander.

“The first principle to remember is, ‘Rain waters your lawns, snow fills your reservoirs,’ ” he said.

And it certainly could be worse — we could be in California. Droughts are classified as mild, moderate, severe or extreme, and depending upon where you are in Utah, we’re in a moderate to severe drought. But in California? They’re ranging from severe to extreme.

Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, says he’s also been getting a lot of folks asking him if the drought is finally over.

“It’s a natural reaction, when you have a week-long rain event like this and it seems like so much water is coming out of the sky at once,” Flint said. “It is good news at one end, but it’s not a drought-buster at the other end.”

Flint said 3 1/2 inches of rain on very dry ground simply doesn’t do enough to begin filling the reservoirs.

“Much of that is being soaked up into the ground as it hits,” he said.

Flint says one merely needs to look to the river levels to see this illustrated.

“The Ogden or Weber river flows pick right up, but as soon as the rain stops, they’re right back to the same flows a day or two later,” he said.

Not that he wants to appear ungrateful.

“It’s all welcome, it’s all great,” Flint said.

And there is a bit of happy news in a ruined spring weekend.

“The good news of it is, with a rainstorm for a week like that comes a sharp decline in demand (for irrigation water). And that lack of demand really helps us,” Flint says. “I like to say a five day on-and-off rain event extends our water stores 10 days.”

Of course, with as much rain as we’ve had of late, there’s the very real danger that folks will think the drought is over, and that they don’t have to do their part to conserve water. Nothing could be further from the truth, say Julander and Flint.

Our reservoirs are draining. Last year, Northern Utah reservoirs peaked at about 60 to 65 percent. This year, they’ll peak at about 52 percent.

So, while we’ll certainly take all the heavy spring rains we can get, the real difference-maker is our increasingly valuable Greatest Snow on Earth.

“If you want to root for a storm, root for it in January, when it will really help,” Flint says.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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