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Utah braces for more searing temperatures, drought conditions

Utah braces for more searing temperatures, drought conditions

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SALT LAKE CITY — The record-shattering, triple-digit heat wave is intensifying the drought across the West and in Utah — where nearly half of the state is suffering severe impacts from no rain and searing heat.

A national assessment looking at state-by-state impacts details some of the grim consequences playing out in Utah, and forecasters are not calling for relief anytime soon.

Monday is slated to be the fifth consecutive day with temperatures topping 100 degrees at Salt Lake City International Airport and the triple-digit heat is projected to be parked on our doorstep at least through Wednesday.

This year's relentless dry, hot weather is prompting drastic measures in San Juan County, where better than half the land is in extreme drought. The National Drought Mitigation Center has received reports of cattlemen reducing the size of their herds and having to haul water.

Elsewhere, the Grand County Water Conservancy District has reduced irrigation allotments down to 40 percent of what is typically delivered, and several Sanpete County communities are on rations of irrigation water.

"We have a huge drought situation," said Claudia Jarrett, chairwoman of the Sanpete County Commission. "There's just been no rain. The streams are not filling and the ponds are not filling. It is a critical water situation."

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Association, in conjunction with multiple other agencies, has compiled a litany of facts that paint a pessimistic picture across much of the state.

From April 30 through Friday, the majority of the state received under 1.5 inches of rain, if any, with exceptions being high in the mountains or along the Wasatch Front.

The latest assessment also shows that 63 percent of the soil in Utah is "very dry," and with each passing day of no moisture, the ground is getting dryer and dryer.


All of Utah is at a high or very high ranking for fire danger, with the Washington County area worse off than the rest of state — classified as extreme.

With the Colorado River snowmelt runoff at just 42 percent of normal, Lake Powell is slated to drop 30 feet in the next year, and state water managers are already girding for reservoirs that will be down as low as 30 percent of capacity by Oct. 1.

Tage Flint, manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said demand on the water system was expected to jump 20 percent over the weekend because of the heat, and the continued spate of triple-digit temperatures could drive that number even higher. The escalating demand is painful in light of the water supply, he added.

"It's been a tough year on the Weber River, as tough as I have ever seen it," Flint said.

In May, the district implemented a 20 percent, across-the-board cut to all of its wholesale irrigation water recipients and will cut off water the third time a secondary user is caught watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The irrigation water reductions put into play by the district are being replicated in other areas throughout the state as communities, farmers and ranchers are left to deal with a snowmelt that peaked unseasonably early and rivers and streams that continue to dwindle with each passing week.

We're at 52 percent of our capacity now with our reservoirs and are going down quickly. We are not used to being in the last half of our storage by first of July. It's typically unheard of.

–Tage Flint

Dry ground compounded by lack of rainfall and the heat are all combining to create untenable conditions for many of Utah's farmers and ranchers.

A weekly report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief economist provides a snapshot of the struggle that is being encountered throughout Utah. Dry and windy conditions are persisting in Wayne and Garfield counties, where "moisture is needed as soon as possible."

All of Utah County is dry, according to the report, and in Box Elder County, dry land alfalfa farmers have detailed a crop that is lighter than normal due to frost and drought. Cache County's dry weather is causing increasing concern with limited supplies of irrigation water, and rangelands and pasturelands, especially, are starting to suffer.

Beef prices are at record highs in Utah and elsewhere because of a drought-fueled spike in feed costs, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that the national cattle herd was down 2 percent in 2012 and was at its lowest level in 60 years.

Those numbers are likely to continue to drop this year as the drought continues to keep the West in its clutches, with 72 percent of the land in 10 Western states being impacted.

For relief, Utah and the other states have their attention fixed on the monsoon season, when stormy weather in Mexico creeps northward and brings much needed moisture to the Southwest.

But dry thunderstorms have been sparking wildfires across Utah, not the pattern that is desired.

Water managers are hoping something gives, and gives soon.

"We're at 52 percent of our capacity now with our reservoirs and are going down quickly," Flint said. "We are not used to being in the last half of our storage by first of July. It's typically unheard of."

The system is designed to hold two years' worth of water storage.

"We try to keep a year's worth in advance of going into the next year," he said. "We will be well under that starting Oct. 1."

In Washington County, where there has been no rain and the fire danger is extreme, any bit of moisture is desperately needed, said Ron Thompson, manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

"If we don't get some rain in July and August, we're toast."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue


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