The item on the agenda of the Jan. 4 meeting of the Grand County Water and Sewer Services Agency Board read, “Lake/snow report,” but Board Chair Gary Wilson summarized the area’s stark water outlook with a wry observation.
“It’s just ‘the lake report.’ There is no snow,” he said.
Until a dusting of snow in recent days, it took only a quick glance toward the La Sal Mountains to prove his point. The view at this time of year should be mostly white; it is now mostly not. It’s not a pretty picture, either, for those concerned about water supply.
“The train wreck is on its way,” said Randy Julander, former supervisor of the National Resource Conservation Service’s snow survey program (he retired at the end of December).
“What a crummy way to start the 2018 water year! Snowpacks are below abysmal!” Julander wrote in a report issued by the NRCS on Jan. 1. Julander noted that things are even worse than in 1977, which is remembered by those who were there as “the year with no snow.”
The NRCS reported current snowpack in the southeastern Utah region would provide a water equivalent that is only 12 percent of normal for this time of year. Even the big storm that hit the area a few days before Christmas had raised the number only seven percentage points, up from five percent reported as of Dec. 21.
Historically, when areas are below 75 percent of normal at the beginning of January, there is a 20-percent likelihood that things will get back to around normal by April, leading Julander to write, “There is always a chance that conditions in southern Utah might reverse, but just not one that I would bet on.”
GWSSA Manager Dana Van Horn said she anticipated the board would begin talking about water restrictions as early as next month for Ken’s Lake irrigation-water users.
“It’s dry, and there is nothing,” she said.
Dry is the norm for Grand County, of course, but county emergency services manager Rick Bailey says things have officially reached drought proportions, and they aren’t expected to get wetter or better anytime soon.
In his office at the end of December, Bailey referred to forecast maps drawn by the National Weather Service that show drought conditions in southeastern Utah worsening and expanding in the next few months.
“This is one of the worst ones I’ve seen, because it started early,” Bailey said, noting that there hasn’t been much moisture at all since August.
Drought-like conditions began moving into the area last spring. Maps from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, show the southern half of Grand County moving into the official drought classification of “abnormally dry” in May.
Later maps show such conditions expanding, and worsening, throughout the state. In September, the first official “moderate drought” crept into northern Grand County. By the end of November, the entire county was so designated. On the most recent map, the first touches of extreme drought glanced the southeastern tip of the county.
Bailey is concerned about the effect on local farmers. “These winter [grazing] ranges don’t have any stock water,” he said. Alfalfa growers will be hurt, he added, causing hay prices to rise.
“Cattle herders will have to sell off,” he said. People who ranch on the side, like he does, will most likely be okay. “But these guys who put bread on their tables ...” he trailed off.
Bailey is trying to get the ball rolling toward a federal declaration of disaster, which would free up financial assistance to ranchers and farmers to deal with the situation. Forecasts for the next three months show, in technical terminology, the drought will persist.
James Pringle, a meteorologist with NWS in Grand Junction is foreboding. “Just because it says drought persists doesn’t mean it can’t become more intense.”
The weather is following a La Niña pattern, which pushes storms north through Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
“The further south you go here in the western states, the less likely you are to have normal precipitation in the next three months,” Pringle said Monday. “We can only hope that the storm track dips a little further south than what is predicted. But right now … we’re not very optimistic.”