Dry spell could erase recent gains in water supply
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Feb 06, 2014 | 1485 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Water levels at Ken’s Lake are not quite as low as in this photo from last spring, but local officials remain concerned about the 2014 water supply as dry weather this winter has resulted in limited snowpack. Times-Independent file photo
Water levels at Ken’s Lake are not quite as low as in this photo from last spring, but local officials remain concerned about the 2014 water supply as dry weather this winter has resulted in limited snowpack. Times-Independent file photo
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Sunshine and bright clear skies might seem like the perfect cure for the wintertime blues. But the weather patterns that settled in over much of the intermountain West for the past month have put a damper on Randy Julander’s short-term water outlook.

Julander, a snow survey supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the storms that swept through the area over the past week have made a difference.

Precipitation for the water year that began on Oct. 1, 2013 is about 80 percent of average, and if the storms keep heading this way, Julander is hopeful that southeastern Utah can maintain that below-normal percentage.

However, it’s going to take much more powerful storms in order to make up for the conditions that prevailed throughout much of January, he said.

“The bottom line is that we’re in a really deep hole,” he said Feb. 5. “[The recent storms] haven’t filled the hole up, but at least we’re not digging any deeper.”

Julander blamed last month’s dry and sunny weather patterns on a powerful high-pressure system that pushed major storms northward into Wyoming, Montana and Canada.

Southeastern Utah began the water year in very good shape. Yet by Jan. 29, snow depths at the 9,560-foot level in the La Sal Mountains had dropped to just 18 inches, according to provisional data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Storms have since boosted those depths to 38 inches. However, if weather patterns continue as Julander predicts they will, the region could end up in the same kind of situation it went through last year, when water supply managers ordered curtailments.

“It wasn’t a real fun year,” he said Jan. 14.

Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency General Manager Mark Sovine doesn’t want to speculate about the steps his organization may take between now and this coming spring.

“At this point, it’s a little early to tell,” he said in January.

However, Sovine is encouraged by current water levels at Ken’s Lake, a vital source of water for local irrigators.

As of Dec. 31, the lake contained 982 acre-feet of water, or nearly 320 million gallons. Reservoir levels have since surpassed the 1,000-acre-foot mark, according to Julander.

That compares to just 218 acre-feet at the same time last year.

“We have a little bit of a head start,” Sovine said.

Both Sovine and Julander noted that heavy precipitation in October and November 2013 boosted soil moisture levels in the area to near-record highs.

“That should translate into stream flows, instead of saturation,” Sovine said.

Indeed, the latest water supply outlook predicts that Mill Creek at Sheley Tunnel will flow at 100 percent of average between April and June.

However, Julander said that warmer and drier weather in the weeks to come could chip away at last fall’s gains.

The problem is not so much that the current snowpack will melt away; it’s the concern that no major storms will come along to boost those levels, he said.

“We’re forecasting that the rest of the winter is going to be relatively dry,” Julander said.

There is always the potential that big storms will pass through the area, he said, but the probability of that happening is fairly low.

“I have to say that I’m pretty much Dr. Doom and Gloom at this point on the subject,” he said.

The current situation in the Moab area is pretty good when compared with much of Utah, Julander said.

But once again, he reiterated that things appear to be drying out as the season wears on.

“It’s going to be a pretty big task to dig out of this hole,” he said.

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