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Drought Eases, But Runoff's Falling Short

Red Butte Creek is flowing but not gushing the way it normally would be in mid-spring.

“What you see is a higher elevation snowpack that’s near-normal,” says Brian McInerney, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service. “You see a mid-elevation snowpack that’s melting prematurely – probably a month early from where we should be – and a low-elevation snowpack that is melted off and is gone.”

He says the spring runoff will probably be just 60 percent of normal --- despite a decent snowpack this year, and sitting on ground that's like a dry sponge. He says it’s the fourth year in a row of warm, dry weather.

It’s an improvement from last year at this time, when Utah was “dry” or in some form of drought statewide, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. This spring, a third of the state’s considered drought-free. And, while it’s good news, conditions could be a lot better, says McInerney.

“If we can get a wet May like last year, this’ll help,” he says. “But if it goes dry, anticipate volumes less that 60 percent down into the 50 percent range or less.”

Urban Utahns probably won’t feel the difference, but McInerney says farmers will.

“The farmers are the ones that are seeing the results of this melt-off in February and melt-off in March, and unfortunately we’re only going to see more of these as we continue with the warming climate.”

Tooele and Juab counties continue to be the driest in the state, but patches of Box Elder and Millard counties are in severe drought, too.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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