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Warm winter leads to 'once-in-a-lifetime' low snow runoff, experts say


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's spring runoff is approaching record lows as a remarkably warm and dry winter made for extremely low levels of snow accumulation.

Snowpack in the state usually peaks around April 1. This year, Utah reached its peak a month early and at half the normal amount. February and March went on to be the warmest on record — dating back 141 years — with 48 consecutive days of above-average temperatures.

Now that chances for runoff recovery have all but dried up for the year, continued water restrictions are likely in especially dry parts of the state, as well as a heavier push for water conservation throughout the year.

"We're witnessing probably a once-in-a-lifetime low snowpack period," said Bart Forsyth, assistant general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, which delivers water to most of Salt Lake County.

Forsyth said he didn't anticipate water restrictions for the area this year, thanks to some late rains last year that helped keep reservoirs from being drained. During the summer, however, Utahns are asked not to water their yards between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. and to turn off the automatic timers on their sprinklers during the spring months, he said.

Residents are also encouraged to water brown spots on their lawn by hand instead of watering the entire yard.

"I'm sort of thinking that brown spots are going to be in this year," Forsyth said.

Ogden is expected to allow a full water allocation this year, though residents will be restricted to watering only twice a week. Similar restrictions will be in place for the rest of the Weber River Basin.

The Provo Water Users Association provides supplemental irrigation water to farmlands in Utah, Salt Lake, Summit and Wasatch counties. The association also delivers domestic water to parts of northern Utah County.


I'm sort of thinking that brown spots (on the lawn) are going to be in this year.

–Bart Forsyth, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District


Keith Denos, general manager of the association, said lower runoffs this year mean "not good news" for the area. He said shareholders will have to rely heavily on reserves from last year in Deer Creek Reservoir.

"Individual shareholders will probably be OK," Denos said. "There are some who will probably hurt because we'll see maybe a 50 percent allocation this year. It could be less than that, actually."

River flows coming out of the mountains this year are consistently well below their average levels across the state, according to Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

  • The Weber River Drainage is at 67 percent of average near Oakley, 55 percent of average at East Canyon Creek and 38 percent at Pineview Reservoir.
  • In the Six Creeks River Drainage, Little Cottonwood is at 66 percent of average with City Creek at 47 percent.
  • The Utah Lake Drainage is flowing at 71 percent of average near Woodland and 38 percent in the Spanish Fork River.
  • Flows into Lake Powell are at 71 percent of average.

Most of Utah's winter precipitation came in late December and quickly diminished with the record high temperatures in February and March, as it did in other western states. Meanwhile, eastern states have had cold temperatures and abundant moisture.

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At fault is a high pressure weather system that stays "parked" over the Western states, pushing moisture from the Pacific up into Alaska and back down across the Midwest and up the East Coast, according to McInerney.

This put Utah about a month ahead of its average temperatures and keeps its runoff levels at a fraction of normal amounts. California was also hit hard, with snowpack levels as low as 6 percent in some areas.

"If we had to pick out one part of this really dismal scenario and say, 'Why do we have such low water supply volumes forecasted for this year,' it really was the heat," McInerney said.

But Utah's reservoir levels are a bright spot in the state's water supply. Monsoonal rains late last summer allowed residents to rely much less on water stored in reservoirs for irrigation purposes. Many reservoirs now remain at levels above average levels for this time of year.

"When you think of where we are right now with our water supply conditions, the first thought is that the reservoirs are going to be in really poor shape, and that's not the case," McInerney said.

McInerney said late summer rains were also expected for this year, which would again reduce the strain on Utah's water storage. But it's no guarantee that the rains will come.

"The last two years, we've had a lot of rainfall during July, August and September," he said. "If we don't get that this year … we're going to be in a really bad place next year."

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Morgan Jacobsen

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