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Big Runoff This Spring Brings Big Challenges

Judy Fahys
Dealing with a big snowpack -- instead of drought -- means a new set of challenges for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Utah. Wayne Pullan, who leads the bureau's Provo Area Office, described those challenges Monday.

The snowpack is near normal in a few places and lagging in southeastern Utah. But most drainages are way above average. It’s the first time in 6 years that water managers are worrying about too much water instead of a shortage.

“In 2017, Mother Nature threw us a knuckleball,” says Wayne Pullan, who leads the Bureau of Reclamation’s Provo area office. “A knuckleball is a changeup pitch, and a knuckleball works because it’s unpredictable.”

Utah’s had the biggest snowpack in modern history. Rivers are running big, too, and more than a month early. And Pullan’s agency is keeping tabs on what these trends might mean in the weeks and months to come.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows no dry areas or drought in Utah.

With all of Utah’s reservoirs expected to fill this year besides Strawberry, water managers are preparing for different challenges. Flooding can damage property. Surging rivers can drown people. Landslides have been known to damage roads and even kill people. Utah typically sees peak runoff in May and June unless temperatures stay unusually warm.

“The other variables are the temperature and the precipitation that we continue to receive,” says Pullan, “and so it becomes a balancing act.”

His office oversees 49 major and minor dams, along with more than 600 miles of canals, pipelines and tunnels. Most of those facilities are old, but he says the system is tended and monitored well, and some parts have been updated. 

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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