Water woes continue, but residents hope for more snow
By Robert Green
After suffering through the driest water year on record, Sanpete Valley residents are encouraged by signs that snowpack will return to normal.
The skies opened up on Thanksgiving weekend and brought some desperately needed precipitation to the state, said Troy Brosten, hydrologist for the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which conducts the Utah Snow Survey.
The San Pitch Basin started the 2019 water year off strong with 150 percent of its average water accumulation for the first two months (October and November).
However, this drop in the bucket doesn’t mean that Sanpete’s water woes will end anytime soon.
First of all, reservoirs in San Pitch River Basin are bone dry, holding zero percent of their capacity for the second straight year.
And water availability index is only 3 percent, according to water reports from NRCS. Springs and aquifers are drying up and it takes several years of good water for the aquifers to recover and rejuvenate, Brosten said.
Precipitation in the San Pitch River Basin was only 60 percent of normal in 2018, and this came right after a dismal water year in 2017.
“Last year was horrible for Sanpete,” Brosten said. “The snowpack was bad and the summer was worse.”
Sanpete County is facing extreme drought conditions along with some counties in Southern Utah, Brosten said.
Gunnison and Nine-Mile reservoirs are mostly dry. Many towns in Sanpete County imposed water restrictions on residents last summer.
Farmers in the region lost their irrigation water early, said Garrick Hall, Utah Farm Bureau Central regional manager.
Gunnison Valley farmer Stan Jensen said drought conditions last year reduced his crop production by 40 percent. Along with his dad and brother, he raises hay and corn in the Gunnison Valley east of the Sevier River.
Jensen said his irrigation time was restricted, and he stopped watering in mid-June. As bad as that may sound, Jensen said that farmers in northern Sanpete County probably had it worse because they don’t have as much water storage and they don’t use as much sprinkler irrigation.
“If we don’t get a lot of snow this winter, we’ll really be in a dire situation,” he said, “because the reservoirs are starting on empty.”
However, the early season snowpack looks good, he said. “And we need a good heavy base for the winter snow to pile up on.”
The Jensen’s will be hoping and praying for a heavy snowfall this winter. As will most water managers throughout the state. Without it, water restrictions will be likely be enforced next year. Not to mention the probability of more devastating wildfires.
Statewide, the 2018 water year was dismal and left the entire state in a moderate to exceptional drought category, according to the NRCS water report.
Utah received about half of its normal snowpack last winter, followed by four months of hot summer temperatures, with abundant forest fires and little rain.
Reservoirs have seen heavy use with little to no water left; across the state, reservoir storage is at 54 percent, compared to 70 percent a year ago.
Soil moisture is at 23 percent compared to 55 percent statewide last year.
Cumulative precipitation for the 2018 water year ranged from 76 percent of average in the Bear River Basin to 51 percent in Southeastern Utah, with the San Pitch River Basin reporting 60 percent and the Upper Sevier Basin coming in at 67 percent of average.
The Upper Sevier Basin is reported to be in better shape than the San Pitch. Reservoir storage is at 18 percent capacity, and the water availability index for Upper Sevier is 5 percent.
However, recent storms just glanced by the Upper Sevier Basin in November, leaving precipitation that month at just 83 percent of normal and bringing the total accumulation of water for 2019 to 136 percent of average, compared to 150 percent in the San Pitch River Basin.
Thanksgiving rains and snows gave the entire state a boost to 135 percent of average for this year. The Beaver and Lower Sevier watershed are off to a particularly good start, coming in at about 200 percent of average for this year.
Brosten cautioned that is too early in the season to know if this winter will translate to boom or bust for snow totals. He also mentioned that it will take above-average precipitation to start to replenish water storage levels.