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Don’t expect full reservoirs this summer

David Hampshire, The Park Record
This May 5 photograph shows a stretch of old US 40 on the east side of the Jordanelle Reservoir that is normally underwater. Photo by David Hampshire/Park Record
(Photo by: David Hampshire/Park Record)

It’s a familiar cycle: As demand exceeds supply beginning in late summer, local reservoirs reveal their receding shorelines, only to be replenished by spring runoff the following year.

But not this year. Park City-area reservoirs are showing the effects of the second straight year of scant snowfall in Utah’s northern mountains.

In the Weber River drainage, storage levels at East Canyon, Echo and Rockport reservoirs last fall were at or near the lowest levels in a decade, according to Bureau of Reclamation records. And Scott Paxman says there’s "very little or no chance of them filling" this summer.

Paxman, assistant general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, noted that snowpack in the Weber River drainage was only 60 to 70 percent of normal last winter and stream flows this spring were about 50 percent of average. "We really didn’t have a spring runoff this year," he said.

The Weber River at Oakley, which feeds into both Rockport and Echo reservoirs, normally reaches about 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the spring, Paxman said. This spring it peaked at about 700 cfs. "I think that’s the highest we’ll see," he said.

Paxman said some irrigation companies that rely on Weber River water have cut their allotments by 25 to 40 percent, and that homes which use irrigation sources for outdoor watering may see some restrictions this year.

Record low at Jordanelle

Meanwhile, the Jordanelle Reservoir east of Park City, which collects water from the Provo River and, to a lesser extent, the Keetley drain tunnel (from local mines), is also showing its shoreline. Last winter the reservoir dropped to its lowest level since it first filled in the mid-1990s, according to Daryl Devey, Bonneville Unit operations and maintenance manager for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. As the water receded, stretches of broken pavement from old US 40 emerged from the depths, along with rusty tackle boxes and other detritus.

But surely old faithful Jordanelle will fill this year, as it seems to do almost every year?

"It won’t even come close," Devey said. "We’re guessing about 71 percent full. This is really a record-setting dry year that we’ve had."

The level of the reservoir is rising, he said, but only at about six inches a day.

In spite of this dreary outlook, Devey isn’t pushing the panic button. He points out that Jordanelle is designed to handle a three-year drought. "There’s still enough water in Jordanelle that it won’t impact supplies this year," he said. Water impounded by the reservoir is used for irrigation and for culinary use on the Wasatch Front.

Park City should be OK

Park City’s water manager, Clint McAfee, says the city’s "well-rounded source portfolio" should also keep its culinary system flush this summer. He says the city is expecting reduced flows from underground sources such as the Judge and Spiro mine tunnels, but will be able to compensate using water from the Rockport Reservoir pipeline.

"That new source has given us the water we need to feel comfortable," he said. "Unless Weber Basin cuts that back, we’ll have a full allocation of water. They’ve indicated that they don’t anticipate cutting back this summer."

But that doesn’t mean Park City is ignoring water conservation. In fact, McAfee said the city is hiring someone this week whose job will be to enforce existing codes. He noted that the city has an ordinance that, among other things, limits outdoor watering to alternate days and certain times of the day.

"The goal isn’t fining people," he said. "It’s more of a public-education effort."

Impact on recreation

So drinking water shouldn’t be an issue, but what about recreation? After all, local reservoirs, especially Jordanelle, are a big draw for boaters, sailors and fishermen.

Laurie Backus, park manager at Jordanelle State Park, said the drought hasn’t affected the boat ramps on the west side of the reservoir. "They were in the water last winter when we were down at 54 percent (of capacity)," she said.

"As far as launching your boat and all of that, everything will be OK."

Backus said the boat and paddleboard rentals shouldn’t be affected either.

"We might have to adjust for some of the events we have planned," she said. "It kind of depends on what the weather does."

Backus pointed out that Devey’s guess that the water level will reach only 71 percent of capacity is just that a guess.

"We’re still rockin’ and rollin’," she said.

Backus acknowledged that the exposed shoreline will mean a longer walk from the picnic areas to the water’s edge, and warned that flip-flops could get pulled off in the mud. "Actually, it will give people more land to use," she said, looking at the bright side.

All the campgrounds are open, she said, including the walk-in campground on the east side of the reservoir at Rock Cliff. A volunteer will be running the Rock Cliff Nature Center one or two days a week, she noted. However, the boat ramp on the east side of the reservoir is currently out of the water.

Staff at Rockport State Park report that the reservoir is open to boating and all docks are in the water, although the lake is only at about 70 percent of capacity. Fishing is reported to be good. All campgrounds are open and available for reservation.

Long-term outlook

Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said the current drought doesn’t mean dire consequences for reservoirs in northern Utah. "Next year, if we have a normal runoff, we’ll be able to fill these reservoirs with the exception of Bear Lake," he said.

However, McInerney warned that climate change will ultimately affect the way that water supplies are handled.

"We’re turning from snow-driven hydrology to rain-driven hydrology," he said.


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