Wet spring deceiving; West, Midwest too dry this year

Mar 23 2013 - 10:30pm


OGDEN -- This summer is going to see spreading drought across not only Utah but also much of the Midwest, as well as higher fire danger and more water-use restrictions. Top of Utah's reservoirs won't even fill up in the spring runoff.

And yet, if you look outside today, it is likely snowing.

It seems odd to talk about increasingly fierce drought when the weather outside is wet, but there are good reasons.

First, springtime is when the National Weather Service, the National Resource Conservation Service, the Forest Service, and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District look at the snowpack, ponder the weather forecast and figure out how much water will run off the mountains in May and June.

They do this in springtime because the amount of snow in the mountains, and the weather patterns for the year, are pretty well fixed by March. It is possible, but not likely, a huge storm system in April could change things.

Second, it is likely snowing today because it always snows in springtime, and this springtime is no exception. Predictions for spring runoff assume normal snow in springtime, so normal snow doesn't improve the situation.

But Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said the snowstorm you could be watching right now is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

To be blunt, it's a punk snowstorm. "It's going to last about five days, but we're only going to get an inch of water out of it," McInerney said.

An inch doesn't cut it.

The Weber River drainage system that fills all the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District's reservoirs currently stands at 71 percent of the average amount of water in the snowpack.

That doesn't mean that much water will hit the reservoirs, however. Weather and dry soil determines how much water actually makes it to the reservoirs. Soil in the mountains is relatively dry and will soak up some moisture, so McInerney said this year's runoff will be between 50 and 60 percent of normal.

"If it's a cold, wet spring, it could be more," but a warm and dry spring could make it even less than 50 percent, he said.

Tage Flint, executive director of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said his reservoirs are at 55 percent full, "and they should be more than that."

His concern, he said, is that current runoff predictions mean almost none of his reservoirs will fill to the top this spring. Only Causey, Smith and Morehouse, the smallest in the system, will fill up.

"We've gone backwards over the last month toward more of a drought scenario," he said. The snowpack is "pretty sad, and, of course, the projected runoff is getting more and more reliable as we get to the end of March, and NRCS and the National Weather Service both help us project the spring runoff by rivers."

Flint's reservoirs typically hold a two-year supply of water, so if they aren't full in the spring, he's starting out the summer irrigation season with a low "bank account," and will act accordingly.

"We will be enforcing watering times, for sure, on outdoor watering," he said, "and we will monitor throughout the spring what the usage is and figure out when to cut off delivery in the fall."

McInerney said the problem is not just in Utah.

"There's really bad drought across the Midwest where we grow most of our food, and the thinking is, it could expand because the storms in the Colorado basin have been so poor," he said.

"The runoff is going to be 60 percent of normal, and this is the second year of dry conditions, then when you add that to what's called D-4 (extremely severe) drought condition, that just complicates things even more."

A drought map issued by the National Resource Conservation Service on Tuesday shows a bright-red center of severe drought over the Kansas-Nebraska area, a prime agricultural area.

That drought area is growing bigger, McInerney said, spreading west to the Colorado Basin and even Utah. Areas of less severe drought surround it, already covering much of the central and Western states.

The Insurance Institute for Business Home Safety issued a wildfire warning Friday, based on drought warnings from the various federal and state agencies and runoff predictions.

The institute issued a warning to homeowners who live near forests to work to make their homes more fire-safe by clearing off roofs and roof gutters, clearing brush and weeds away from homes, and moving yard structures and things like propane tanks a safe distance away.

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