Recent Rains Help, But a Wet Winter is Needed to Claw Utah Out of Drought
It’s been wet in the Wasatch Back this week, and rain is in the forecast for the next several days. Will the precipitation help get Utah out of its drought?
Utah is experiencing an unprecedented summer with 100% of the state now in either the “extreme” or “exceptional” drought categories. This week’s rain has been a welcome respite from recent heat waves that saw temperatures regularly creep above 100 degrees, but water levels and rainfall totals remain far below normal.
Candice Hasenyager is the Deputy Director of the Utah Division of Water Resources and says yes, the rain does help, but Utah needs a winter of snow that is roughly 150% of average in order to see any long-term progress.
“About 95% of our water supply in Northern Utah and about 75% Southern Utah actually comes from our snowpack, so the snow that we build up during the winter that runs off in the spring time or early summer,” Hasenyager says. “That’s actually what fills our reservoirs and really creates kind of that bank of water that we’ve been relying on during this drought.”
She says when it comes to rain, most of the recent water is likely to be absorbed into the ground instead of filling reservoirs because of how dry this summer has been. According to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the state has received fewer than 20 inches of precipitation this year -- more than 10 inches less than the 30-year average.
The good news, she says, is more rain this summer means more snowmelt ending up in Utah’s reservoirs next year instead of melting and being absorbed directly into the ground. The Weber Basin Water Reclamation District said in June its reservoirs only received 3% of their usual runoff this spring.
She added in order for Utah to fully get out of the drought on rain alone, a whole lot would be needed.
“To restore conditions to average for the year, Utah still needs about 13.5 inches of rain,” says Hasenyager. “About nine of that is to cancel the deficit to what we typically would have received, but it’s just been so hot and dry, and then about another four-point-five inches to count for the precipitation that we normally accumulate from July to September.”
Hasenyager says it’s hard to say definitively whether or not drought in Utah will become the new normal, but data does show increasing temperatures due to global climate change will cause more unpredictable weather in the future.
“I think what’s important is climate scientists who have done a lot of different climate change modeling and those types of things are projecting that we’re going to see higher and lower extremes in our precipitation as well as higher temperatures,” she says. “I think that’s really what we need to prepare for going forward.”
In the meantime, people are encouraged to do their part in order to help conserve water this summer. Hasenyager says cutting back on watering yards, turning sprinklers off after a rainstorm, and looking at ditching the traditional lawn for more natural landscaping are all effective ways to reduce the amount of water you use on a daily basis.