El Niño projections show possibility for wet winter, drought relief

In this 2015 file photo, storms pushed the snowpack to 150 percent of normal in Southern Utah; Central, Utah, Dec. 26, 2015 | File photo photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – When it comes to predicting the weather, Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager Ron Thompson said a person has a safer chance betting on the outcome of the World Series, especially when it comes to predictions for the coming 2018-19 winter.

However, according to a recent report from The Associated Press, things may be looking up for the southwestern U.S. as far as drought conditions are concerned.

El Niño winter projections

Last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, released it’s winter outlook with projections for a mild winter with warmer temperatures for much of the country based on El Niño weather patterns.

The projections, which cover December through February, do not show any part of the country in store for a colder-than-normal winter. Much of the West shows up to a 40-50 percent chance for above average temperatures, according to NOAA.

As for the precipitation forecast, it is expected to be above average for areas of the Southwest moving east along the Southern coast and up the East Coast to New Jersey.

Utah sits in the range of areas having an “equal chance” for below-to-normal and above-average levels of precipitation, while the southern parts of the state have up to a 40 percent chance, according to NOAA projections.

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There is a 70-75 percent chance for development this winter of El Niño, the natural warming of parts of the central Pacific Ocean that influences weather worldwide, Gerry Bell, research meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, told The Associated Press Wednesday. Pacific Ocean temperatures are currently warmer than average as they trend toward El Niño, Bell said.

Possible drought relief

El Niño-produced rainfall could relieve parched conditions in many parts of the drought-stricken Southwest, but how much relief the region experiences depends upon the strength of the tropical ocean phenomenon, Bell said.

El Niño is not a guarantee,” he said.

Seasonal monsoon rainfall during the summer and autumn months helped relieve drought conditions in parts of the Southwest, but Thompson said Southern Utah needs the snow, noting the precipitation NOAA predicted could come in the form of rain instead of the much-needed snow.

In this file photo, Sand Hollow reservoir, along with other reservoirs across the state, are credited with carrying Utah through the “dismal” 2017-18 water year, Hurricane, Utah, June 28, 2016 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The more snow in the mountains the better, as run off from melting snowpack helps bolster the Virgin River and its drainage basin and fills the county’s reservoirs.

The 2017-18 water year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018, was labeled as “below dismal” by state and federal water officials in relation to snowpack. Utah also ranked among the driest states in the nation for the water year.

Read more: Reservoirs anticipated to carry county, state through ‘dismal’ water year

Despite the general lack of precipitation over the last year, there have been some recent storms that dropped some short-lived snow in the mountains, which Thompson said helps him remains optimistic about the forecast.

Thompson nonetheless stresses the need for Washington County residents to be prudent with their water use.

Water saved today can be used tomorrow,” he said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency for Utah on Oct. 15 due to drought. The order allows state and federal resources for drought-affected communities and agricultural producers.

Read more: Herbert declares state of emergency due to drought

Reservoirs to the rescue

“This low water year could have put the entire state of Utah in a drought emergency if it weren’t for one thing – water storage,” Thompson said in a press release from the water district following Herbert’s emergency declaration. “Utah is blessed to have nearly 100 reservoirs that store water close to communities, ensuring our citizens and businesses have the water needed to survive.”

Reservoirs exist to store surplus water for use in periods of drought; their primary function is to supply water to sustain the population and economy. Secondary benefits include recreational, environmental, financial and social purposes.

Recent media reports have noted that Utah’s reservoirs are currently below average levels.

“Water managers sleep easier when reservoirs are full, but reservoirs weren’t designed to be full all the time,” Thompson said.

It’s normal to see highs and lows. Keeping reservoir levels as high as possible is a community effort. We can, and all should, be a little more mindful of how much water we use, knowing that what we save today will be available for us tomorrow.

Thanks to the 2017 water year, which saw high-levels of snowpack, the county’s reservoirs were largely filled, enabling life to continue in the county as usual.

“Washington County residents are literally living off reservoir storage this year,” Thompson said.

Current reservoir levels in the county are as follows:

  • Quail Creek – 57 percent
  • Sand Hollow – 75 percent
  • Gunlock – 38 percent
  • Ivins – 54 percent.

Kolob Reservoir is currently at zero percent, following draining in an attempt to remove illegal fish.

Thompson told St. George News that the county could survive on the water in the county’s two primary reservoirs – Quail Creek and Sand Hollow – and the area’s ground water basin for around three to four years before having to start rationing water use.

However, that estimate is based on the county’s current population, which also continues to grow, Thompson said.

The current system, which has some big water projects in play, is expected to carry the county through to the late 2020s. After that point, a new source of water, such as the Lake Powell Pipeline, will be needed, Thompson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this post.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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2 Comments

  • Bender October 26, 2018 at 4:30 pm

    Well written and sourced piece Mori!

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