PROVO — Nervous water managers are wading into this irrigation season fearful the effects of the state's puny snowpack will be amplified by a long, dry summer.
Brian McInerney, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, warned a crowd attending a symposium on climate variability that they'd better get used to it.
"What you get is drought," he said Monday in Provo at the Utah Valley Convention Center. "More intense storms, more intense rainfall events. We are already seeing it now."
McInerney, one of the presenters at the Central Utah Water Conservancy District's Symposium on Climate Variability, pointed to a 2015 flash flood in southern Utah that killed 21 people.
He noted that early in his career in the 1980s, winters would experience one to two weeks of high pressure.
"The storms would come in on a regular basis."
This last winter, the Salt Lake area experienced 12 weeks of high pressure, he said.
Salt Lake City has already issued voluntary water restrictions in the face of a drought that now impacts all of the state.
McInerney said Utah's quirky winter had managers struggling with each end of the spectrum.
"We went from flood control to drought control in two-months time," he said. "We have reservoir managers who are trying to save as much water as possible, but worried about flood control at the same time."
We went from flood control to drought control in two-months time. We have reservoir managers who are trying to save as much water as possible, but worried about flood control at the same time.
–Brian McInerney, National Weather Service in Salt Lake City
Most of Utah's reservoirs — with the exception of Lake Powell — are full. The trick is being able to hang on to that water in what is expected to be a drier-than-normal summer.
If Utah gets another poor-performing winter, the results could be severe, he said.
"We're experiencing a change in our snow cover. Winter is starting later and melting earlier," McInerney said.
Tom Bruton, an assistant general manager with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, said the symposium is intended to bring people together from the water arena to discuss openly the challenging issues of the day.
Last year's symposium was dedicated to Utah Lake, which is experiencing protracted algae blooms that pose health risks and damage its recreation value.
This year, coming off the state's mild winter, the symposium focused on climate variability and how the state can best cope with that problem.
"There are going to be some really hard decisions that will have to be made," McInerny said. "It's better if we educate ourselves on the science."