water outlook

California gulls congregate at a temporary pond in Tremonton created by recent rainfall. Utah has started off the new water year that began Oct. 1 with some good precipitation, but the state has a long way to go to make up for persistent drought in recent years.

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Recent rains have Utah off to a good start in the new water year, but there’s a lot to make up for after persistent drought conditions have left local reservoirs less than half full and dropped the Great Salt Lake to record low levels.

For the new water year that began Oct. 1, Utah has recorded above-average soil moisture and precipitation statewide, but state water officials say that trend will need to continue throughout the winter and into next spring for Utah to make significant progress in erasing its current water deficit.

“While this is exciting, we have a long way to go,” said Brian Steed, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, in a press release issued last week. “Snowpack typically peaks around the first week of April, which means we have five months to collect as much snowpack as possible. While we wait on our snowpack, we will continue to plan for all scenarios if the snowpack doesn’t replenish our water storage.”

The following measurements and information provide context to Utah’s current drought conditions, water storage and stream flows:

• As of Nov. 8, 37 of Utah’s largest 45 reservoirs remained below 55% of available capacity. All reservoirs in Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties at the northern end of the state are below half full. Those include Bear Lake (45%); Woodruff Creek (33%) and Woodruff Narrows (19%) reservoirs; Newton Reservoir (7%); Hyrum Reservoir (34%); Porcupine Reservoir (24%); and Willard Bay Reservoir (35%). Overall, statewide storage is 49% of capacity, down from about 62% a year ago.

• Precipitation accumulation (as measured at NRCS SNOTEL sites) total so far this water year is 4.8 inches. This is a good start to the water year; however, the trend will need to continue for the state to reach the 29.2 inches needed to get back to average.

“Since the state started the year essentially in debt water-wise, a better-than-average water year is needed,” the DNR press release states.

• Soil moisture is 16% above median for this time of year. Wet soils are critical in the fall as the state begins to accumulate its winter snowpack. Frequent storms are needed to keep moisture in the soil as we head into winter.

• Of the 97 measured streams, nearly half (48) are flowing below normal, including three that are flowing at their lowest levels on record. This is an indicator of the long-term nature of drought recovery, as stream flows are still low in much of the state despite the recent precipitation. It typically takes as long to recover from drought as it took to get into drought.

• The cumulative flow of Utah’s 28 critical headwater streams is 0.07 million acre-feet, which is right about at the median for this time of year. Daily flow from those streams is also at approximately the median for this time of year.

• After dropping to 4190.3 in mid-October, the Great Salt Lake’s elevation is on the rise at 4190.6, about 9.6 inches below the historic record low of 4191.4. Levels are expected to continue to rise now that irrigation season has concluded and fall/winter storms have moved in.

• Evaporative demand has been mostly average for this time of year. Evaporative demand has been slightly below average in the northwest corner of the state in Box Elder County, but a little higher in the southeast corner in San Juan County.

• Harmful algal bloom (HAB) monitoring by the Department of Environmental Quality has ended for the season, but HABs may still be present in Utah’s water bodies during the fall, winter and spring. Recreators are advised to avoid areas of scum, avoid ingesting water and rinse off after coming into contact with water.

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