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Sky is dry, reservoir levels dropping fast

Broad leafed grass always does better with more moisture, as do most plants. But this year there is so little ambient moisture in the ground that even these hardy grasses are failing to grow without water. This photo illustrates an area that is being sprinkled regularly with the dry grass denoting where the end of the stream falls.

By RICHARD SHAW Sun Advocate publisher

The green lawns and trees full of leaves in the central area of Carbon County are deceiving. That the area is in a drought can be easily overlooked.

The reason everything looks so green? Excellent water storage.

Scofield Reservoir, which presently holds about 46,000 acre feet of water, is saving the area from stringent water restrictions. But that reservoir is going down fast, because weak spring water flows did not do much to fill it further. With very little moisture in the ground in the valley, residents and agricultural users are using the water quickly. Combine that with the early summer heat in the area, lots of wind and literally no new moisture in months, and that could add up to real problems.

The area has counted on that reservoir storage for a long time (almost 70 years) and without it central Carbon County would be a very different place. It is estimated that the water is being used at approximately 2,000 acre feet a week. While nothing is definite and if rain came that could change that present useage, there may be curtailment of supplies later in the summer.

Bob Davis, the Price River Water Commissioner said that to him this seems to be a near record year for lack of runoff.

"I have never seen it this dry this early in the year," said Davis, who has been in the job he is doing for 22 years. "I am increasing the flow into the river from the reservoir every other day. I also worry about how much we are losing in evaporation (with the hot temperatures) and in transport (water sinking into the dry ground around the river, canals and ditches)."

Davis said that in early April the level of the reservoir reached its highest peak at about 56,000 acre feet. As of Tuesday the level was at 46,995 and moving down fast.

A recent report out of the Natural Resources Conservation Service on water flows, ground moisture and available supplies paints a picture of no immediate crisis (because of the good storage from a wet winter in 2010-11), but also points out how far below average precipitation and runoff has been this year.

"Of special note this month are current streamflows or more specifically the lack thereof," said Randy Julander, who specializes in snowpack and water supplies for the NRCS. "Southern Utah has gone a month to two months without measurable precipitation and soil moisture conditions in some cases are below plant wilting point, which has negative consequences for range forage production and fire potential."

That's one of the reasons many agencies involved in fire control in the state put in such stringent requirements for having fires last Thursday. "Wilting point" basically means that there is not enough moisture to keep many plants alive. It's a condition almost anyone who has ever planted flowers has experienced. You plant the flowers and take good care of them for a few days and then something else takes precedence. Suddenly, after not watering them like you should, they are wilting for lack of moisture. Sometimes you can soak them and bring them back, but often they either don't make it or come back very sickly. Unfortunately there is no big hose to water all the plants out on the public lands or many large private parcels, short of mother nature, that can solve the problem the county is presently experiencing.

This problem is not only a fire danger because of dry plants, but also leads to the destruction of range forage for many of the animals that live in the areas affected.

"The problems are a little different out in the desert area than they are in the mountains," said Brad Crompton, a habitat biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "In the desert we did have some of our guzzlers that had water in them actually stored from last year. We have placed some emergency ones there too. That is mostly for the pronghorns that live out there."

When it comes to the forests, there is another set of problems; forage and water.

"For the deer and the elk the snow in the winter and the spring and the rain in May and June are critical for those animals' health," he said. "They don't do well when it doesn't happen and it hasn't this year."

What the prolonged results will be of dry winter, spring and now summer remains to be seen. But it is obvious that a change in the weather to a wetter pattern would help immensley both for man and creature. However if that doesn't happen, there are many different scenarios that could take place. Water for agricultural use could be curtailed as municipal users could be cut way back as well. Wildlife numbers could suffer badly, and worst of all, fire, which remains a flickering danger in wet and dry years, could determine a lot in the coming months in eastern Utah.

All those that the Sun Advocate talked to concerning this article asked the public to be aware that despite the fact water restrictions (voluntary or involuntary) have not been invoked, that everyone should watch their water usage and only use what they need.

With the ongoing drought, and the possibility that next winter could be dry as well if the weather pattern continues, each and every drop of water that is saved now, will be there for use later.

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