With water managers from across the state in St. George for the annual Utah Water Users Workshop, much of the discussion was about the statewide challenges ahead for what is simultaneously one of the driest and one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. But for some in Southern Utah, drought conditions are causing more immediate concerns.
Stream flow levels were registering at about 50 percent of the median, and in key parts of the Virgin River, flows were measured at barely more than 30 percent. It is also the third straight drought year, and other than a few major precipitation years — years when flooding actually limited what managers could draw into the reservoirs — it has been a stretch of 13 years with below normal runoff.
“This is probably the very worst drought I’ve seen,” said John Wadsworth, who has been farming in the Hurricane Valley since 1969 and has alfalfa and grain fields in need of water, as well as a peach orchard.
Wadsworth said there is still hope that monsoonal rains later in the summer might help, but heading into spring he expects less water will be available, and less often. He said he anticipates about a 25 percent drop in his gross crop sales.
Wadsworth and other farmers and ranchers are likely to take the brunt of the impacts this year, but there should be enough reservoir storage to avoid restrictions in culinary use, said Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
The Sand Hollow and Quail Creek reservoirs, the area’s two largest, were still at more than 70 percent of capacity on Tuesday, and there is significant underground storage underneath Sand Hollow that can supplement supplies, Thompson said.
On the other hand, there will be no spring runoff to replenish that storage, Thompson said, calling it perhaps the worst drought he’s seen in more than a quarter-century as the district manager.
“This year’s clearly going to be down on the bottom 25 percent of all years, and probably the bottom 10 percent,” he said.
National Weather Service Hydrologist Brian McInerney said the region has been caught in a pattern the last several years in which a high pressure system blocked winter storms. There are still opportunities for cooler weather and more moisture in the spring to help, but the short-term forecast was for more dryness and higher temperatures.
There are also hopes for a heavy monsoon season like last year’s, which was uncharacteristically wet, but historically that would appear unlikely — last year the weather service issued nearly twice as many flash flood warnings as it had in any other year because the storms were so prevalent.
“The truth of the matter is we just don’t have any skill to forecast what we’re going to get,” McInerney said.
In a broader sense, Thompson and other managers saw the drought as part of the larger issue of how to plan ahead to meet the growing demand of a growing county, with population growth being the driving force behind plans to build the Lake Powell Pipeline.
At an estimated 144,000 people, Washington County uses only about two-thirds of the average supply, but official population growth estimates anticipate the county reaching nearly 200,000 people by 2020, and more than 370,000 by 2040.
In addition, recent climate change models predict that the Virgin River basin could start to see a 10 percent drop-off in annual water yields, along with more rain than snow and an earlier spring runoff — all factors that would reduce the amount of water coming into area reservoirs, and something that Thompson said he worries could be tied to 13 years of below-average runoff.
“It says to me you better be wise because the new normal may be significantly less than the average,” he said.
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