Saving water has paid off

Sep 5 2010 - 10:41pm

OGDEN -- The Farmer's Almanac predicts a "milder than normal" winter across the Western states but Utah's water and weather officials hope it is wrong.

With one month to go to the end of the water year, Utah has benefited from a wetter-than-normal summer following an average winter.

Storage in the state's reservoirs is just average, however. Pineview is at 67 percent and Willard Bay is at 94 percent, but Echo and Causey reservoirs are at 42 and 41 percent respectively, and others are in that same range.

So if snow this winter is below average, that will leave drier reservoirs next spring.

Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney doesn't put a lot of stock in the almanac.

"I read where they come up with that. It said they use a secret mathematical formula," he said. "Which means they don't know. We have computers and models and formulas and satellite data and we still can't do it. They claim 85 percent accuracy, but I don't know."

Tage Flint, executive director of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said he's more pleased with how conservation efforts over the past 10 years have paid off. Water saved is water that doesn't have to fall from the sky, and he said a 10-year effort to promote conservation is paying off.

"We use the year 2000 as a benchmark -- that was the year we started in earnest with our water conservation programs," he said.

"The first six months of the year, we were significantly below the year 2000 in usage, As you know, it rained and snowed a lot in the spring. We jumped out of that trend in July" when the rains stopped and the use of irrigation water picked up, but even then usage matched 2000 levels.

What's key, Flint said, is "those are not adjusted for growth, which means we are actually doing better than that because we are supplying a bigger population than 2000," but using the same amounts of water.

"So we are encouraged."

Flint said conservation can make up for the reservoirs being about 15,000 acre-feet below where they were a year ago. The reservoirs did fill this spring, "but we started using it earlier," because the runoff ended earlier.

McInerney said Utah's water year starts on Oct. 1, and wetter weather also usually hits around then, but the last three years have not followed the rules.

The first big 2009 winter storms didn't hit until December, and even then accumulation was at or below average.

"Then we had a big storm at the beginning of March, and again at the beginning of April."

Wet weather hit again in May, adding to the snowpack, so when the weather suddenly turned hot June 5, several areas of the state had flooding, even though the overall snowpack was just average.

Despite the Farmer's Almanac, McInerney said he's reluctant to try to make anything more than a long-term guess for the winter.

South Pacific water temperatures are changing, he said, going from El Nino to La Nina, and a La Nina typically "makes whatever you have more so."

The problem with that is Top of Utah is right on the dividing line between colder and wetter weather patterns that hit the Northwest, and hotter and drier patterns that hit the Southwest.

Because of that, the only thing McInerney felt confident predicting was that it could go either way.

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