Utah nearing worst water levels in decade; future looks drier, dire

Jul 7 2013 - 8:38am

Images

A tire swing hangs from a branch on Pineview Reservoir on May 25, but any users will find themselves swimming in sand. (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
A kayaker enjoys the cooler high-elevation temperatures at Causey Reservoir recently. (JEFF DEMOSS/Standard-Examiner)
A tire swing hangs from a branch on Pineview Reservoir on May 25, but any users will find themselves swimming in sand. (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
A kayaker enjoys the cooler high-elevation temperatures at Causey Reservoir recently. (JEFF DEMOSS/Standard-Examiner)

OGDEN -- Saying the month of June was exceptionally dry is like saying Superman is pretty tough.

But the water struggles Top of Utah residents are encountering are much more real, as one area water expert says this may well be the driest summer in a decade.

Based on the latest Utah Climate and Water Report, June was hotter than normal, creating a high demand for water use, with "virtually" no precipitation, said Randall P. Julander, hydrologist and snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"There is no real optimism at this point," he said in an email.

Stream flows are below 25 percent of normal, he said, and soil moisture is near the bottom of historic lows.

And although reservoir levels in the Top of Utah measure at about 74 percent capacity, they are dropping rapidly.

"No precipitation anywhere. That is across the state, from north to south," Julander said.

And if July is like June, he said, "our water use is going to really skyrocket."

Agriculture is going to be the area hurt the most, with farmers facing 25 to 70 percent reductions in water use this summer, Julander said.

To help the situation, residents trying to keep their yards green need to conserve by observing a few basic principles, like watering at night and applying the right amount of water to their lawn, Julander said.

But even then, he offers no promises of what next summer may hold when it comes to restrictions if residents don't conserve water this summer.

"A dry summer could impact the area this year, and next year as well," he said.

"Fifty percent (capacity in a reservoir) is a full year's water allocation."

But the summer ends with reservoirs between 20 to 40 percent of capacity, Julander warned "that is well below the operating margin" water managers like to see.

Secondary water restrictions have been implemented by many Utah cities across the state.

One city where mandatory water restrictions have not been enacted is in Syracuse. There, city leaders are relying on residents to adhere to voluntary prescribed restrictions in recognizing the city's "dire" secondary water conditions.

But even though July and August are forecast to be dry, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District officials are pleased that, based on demand flows, it appears secondary water users are attempting to save water.

"The good news is, people are responding and we are saving water," said Scott Paxman, assistant general manager of the district. "We just need to make sure they continue."

Outdoor watering demands have been reduced through conservation and restrictions, and any water residents can save over this summer, Paxman said, is like banking that water in the reservoir for future use.

"Typically, we want to see our reservoirs half full (after a hot summer)," he said. "We're not going to be there this year. We just want to see some carryover from this year."

The hope is to have reservoir storage at 25 percent of normal by the time the watershed starts to be restored in the fall, Paxman said.

But to achieve such a goal will take the work of each individual water user. On average, water users use twice as much water on their lawns and landscape than is needed, he said.

"It's been about a decade since it has been this dry and with this low of flows."

The district finished with its spring runoff by mid-June, and the current stream flow is now only that water that was once held in reserve, Paxman said.

The summer drought is also challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As of July 1, the drought summer conditions are presenting the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Box Elder County with severe water management conditions. The Bear River is running well below seasonal flow rates, said Kathi Stopher, visitor services manager for the refuge.

Refuge staff members are moving water to maintain the high-priority units, while high temperatures are evaporating water quickly elsewhere, Stopher said.

The Top of Utah has experienced a week's worth of triple-digit temperatures throughout the end of June and the beginning of July.

Because of extremely low water levels, visitors to the refuge may see stranded carp, Stopher said. But those carp do provide an important food source for many of the refuge's wetland birds, she said.

"We are desperately hoping for a good snowpack year next year," Julander said.

In the meantime, he said, state water managers will be anxiously waiting for it.

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