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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

St. George is having a rare ‘dream year’ for rain in the southwest Utah desert

St. George, Utah, just broke its all-time record for the most precipitation during a water year, which is measured from October to October.
David Condos
St. George, Utah, just broke its all-time record for the most precipitation during a water year, which is measured from October to October.

It’s something you don’t often hear living in the desert, but it’s been a good year for water in southwestern Utah.

St. George just broke its all-time record for the most precipitation during a water year, which is measured from the start of October to the end of September.

The city has received 15.79 inches of rainfall since Oct. 1 of last year — or roughly twice its historical average of 8.04 inches. This year set a new high mark in weather archives that dates back to 1893 and broke the city’s previous record of 15.77 inches set in 1932.

John Cecava, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said the two primary factors fueling this record year have been Utah’s exceptionally wet winter and the recent rains from monsoons and tropical storms.

“The way the storms have been moving, have just kind of settled their way right over St. George and southwestern Utah.”

It came down to four particularly wet months: January, March, August and September.

St. George had its fourth-wettest January on record with 3.15 inches of rain. That was followed by the city’s third-wettest March with another 3.85 inches.

“While it was snowing at most locations, those lower elevations just really saw a lot of rain,” Cecava said. “Southern Utah as a whole has just seen a lot of precipitation.”

Then after a delayed start to the monsoon season, summer rains arrived with a bang.

In August, St. George fell in the path of both Hurricane Hilary from the Pacific — an unprecedented storm fueled by El Niño and human-caused climate change — and Tropical Storm Harold from the Gulf of Mexico. Still, August wasn’t too extraordinary — just the 20th-wettest on record for St. George with 1.57 inches. But September has made up for it so far.

During the first three days of the month, 3.83 inches of rain fell. That means St. George has nearly broken the record for its wettest-ever September — 4.16 inches from 1939 — and the month isn’t even halfway over.

The rest of Utah has also set some records this summer. Salt Lake City and Logan both experienced their fifth-wettest August. For places like Cedar City and Nephi, August precipitation totals ended up among the top 20 wettest on record.

Since southwest Utah is typically one of the driest parts of the state, all this extra water has forced the Washington County Water Conservancy District to adapt its approach. Instead of trying to squeeze every last drop of the meager rainfall it usually gets, manager Zach Renstrom said his job has shifted to finding more ways to hold onto this year’s abundant water for the future.

This time of year the city’s reservoirs typically run low after a full summer of being drained for drinking and irrigation.

“But right now, all our reservoirs are over 90%, which just does not occur. It's a rare event.”

The extra rain has helped St. George save more of its treated water, too, as residents and farmers have more chances to turn off their irrigation. Water use is down 8% from last year, Renstrom said, despite a 4% increase in the number of water connections in the city.

While there has been isolated flooding that impacted trails and roads, the wet weather arrived slowly and steadily enough that it miraculously filled up St. George’s reservoirs without threatening to sweep away residents’ homes.

“From a water management standpoint, this was the best that we could have ever asked for,” Renstrom said, “because we got the volume of water that we desperately needed, but we didn't have any major flooding, which is such a rare occurrence in the desert.”

Even with a wet year, he said, St. George can’t ease up on its conservation efforts, including a sizable wastewater recycling plan and rebates for residents to remove irrigated lawns and install low-flow toilets.

But for now, being on top of the precipitation record books is a good place to be.

“This will be the dream year,” Renstrom said. “The bad thing is we are going to compare all future water years to this year, and I don't think I'll see another water year like this in my career.”

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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