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Despite spring snow, experts say a 40% decrease in river flows could be in our future

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Courtesy Oakley City Website
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Water experts say Utah’s reservoirs are in rough shape. After a winter with less than average snowfall, it’s shaping up to be another dry summer.

According to data from the Utah Division of Water Resources, 28 of the state's 45 largest reservoirs are currently below 55% capacity. This time last year, Utah’s reservoirs were around 65% capacity.

In a desert state like Utah, a steady flow of water from reservoirs is crucial for many communities – especially in rural parts of the state.

The decrease in reservoir levels has a lot to do with Utah’s winters. 95% of the state’s water supply comes from melted snow, which Utah didn’t get much of this past season. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Utah has only received 70% of its average snowfall as of April 14th.

Zach Frankel is the Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council and says snowpack is not only crucial for Utah’s water supply, but the water supply for most of the western United States.

“Sometimes it’s easy to forget the fact that the biggest reservoir we have in the American West is our snowpack," Frankel says. "Our snowpack is where all the water from the Colorado River originates. Those snowpacks have been shrinking with increasing wintertime air temperatures.”

Utah wasn’t the only state to see decreased snow levels this past winter. The Utah Snow Survey’s Jordan Clayton says little snow was seen throughout the region during an unusually dry period from mid-January to the end of March.

“If you look at the entire Southwest, there are quite a number of snow total sites across the Southwestern United States, over that same 50-day window, received just an abysmal amount of snow,” says Clayton.

But the news isn’t all bad. Statewide soil moisture levels are almost double what they were one year ago, which is essential to getting more water into Utah reservoirs during the spring runoff period.

The Utah Rivers Council recently published a report on the state of the upper Colorado River basin, which includes much of eastern and southern Utah. The Green River in eastern Utah is a major tributary to the Colorado River and Frankel says river flows have decreased by 20% over the last 20 years.

Although it’s uncertain what the future holds, Frankel says the scientific consensus is that river flows will likely continue to decrease before they get any better. He says water-saving measures like limiting how many times people water their lawns can help, but a long-term fix will likely come in the form of state legislation, which Frankel says Utah has been slow to adopt.

“The bottom could be a 40% reduction in flows in the Colorado River sometime in coming years," he says. "We need to plan for less water and we need to do it now, and we’re really not being as proactive in the Colorado River basin and in Utah as a whole in preparing for this drier future.”

Local water suppliers have taken action to limit water use.

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District announced significant water cutbacks to outdoor, indoor, and agricultural water use earlier this month.

The Summit Water Distribution Company also has a mandatory irrigation schedule in place and the Mountain Regional Water District has said outdoor watering restrictions are likely this summer.