The beaches around the Jordanelle Reservoir have been growing and the grass appears to be receding farther from the waterline, the last 18 months of drought leaving a mark that can be plainly seen to drivers passing on S.R. 248 or U.S. 40.
Officials say the basin sits at 67% capacity and the spring runoff appears to be lower than expected, with the reservoir not predicted to hit 80% capacity this year.
That’s not the lowest the Jordanelle has been since it was filled in the mid-1990s, according to Paul Pierpont, the person who’s responsible for the reservoir’s operation and management. Pierpont said the reservoir has approached half capacity in the past.
“It’s always concerning on a dry year like this. The word I would use is concerning, but not critical,” said Pierpont, the Provo River area manager for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. “Being the second-driest state in the nation, we have built infrastructure to get us through these times. Systems are doing exactly what they were designed to do: take these hits on dry years.”
Pierpont said he would consider the situation critical if the same conditions that have persisted for the last 18 months lasted another year or two.
Ranger Chase Pili, who helps manage Jordanelle State Park, said the low water level won’t greatly impact recreation opportunities at the reservoir this summer. The Jordanelle saw the second highest visitation of any state park last year, with the number of visits climbing by nearly 50% to almost 1 million in 2020, according to a state parks spokesperson.
Pili said that the Jordanelle is a relatively steep and deep reservoir, meaning the effects of lower water levels might not be as dramatic as in other places.
There will be less room for boaters on the reservoir, as its surface has become smaller, but the main boat ramp at the popular Hailstone launch site remains submerged, Pili said. The ramps at Ross Creek and Rock Cliff, however, are completely out of the water, leaving boaters and swimmers to walk down to the waterline.
Pierpont said the reservoir’s water level is typically at its lowest in late summer and that it continues to dwindle through the winter.
The Jordanelle provides drinking water to Wasatch, Utah and Salt Lake counties. It provides floodwater storage and contributes to maintaining minimum flow levels in some rivers, Pierpont said, so water is continually leaving its banks. That leads to relatively lower water levels than the Deer Creek Reservoir, its neighbor to the southwest. Deer Creek was nearly 85% full as of Thursday.
The Jordanelle is also a much larger reservoir, capable of holding more than 314,000 acre-feet of water compared to around 152,000 acre-feet in Deer Creek.
Pierpont said earlier modelling indicated the Jordanelle might fill to 80% capacity with snowpack runoff, but that now appears unlikely.
One contributing factor is temperature fluctuation in the High Uinta Mountains, Pierpont said, where much of the water that flows into the Provo River originates. When snow melts, the water first saturates the soil before running off into streams, rivers and reservoirs. If temperatures cool sufficiently between melts, the soils must be resaturated, leading to less efficient runoff.
Earlier this year, some data collection sites were showing the lowest soil moisture levels ever recorded, in addition to a low snowpack.
Pierpont said the system’s water infrastructure was built to withstand multiple dry years, and says he’s optimistic that wet weather will return.
The alternative, a condition of semi-permanent aridification, could imperil the region’s ski industry. Already, water providers are imposing restrictions meant to curtail water usage in response to the drought.
The Utah Department of Natural Resources is recommending Summit County residents and those who live in Cache, Rich and Daggett counties irrigate their lawns only once per week, the lowest recommended level in the state.
The agency defines irrigation as 20 minutes of watering with pop-up spray heads or 40 minutes with impact rotor sprinklers.
Oakley City has imposed a $10,000 fine for using culinary water to fill swimming pools or ponds, and on Wednesday enacted a moratorium on issuing building permits for structures requiring connection to the city’s water and a moratorium on installing new landscaping that requires irrigation.
Pierpont said that conservation will play a big part in managing the state’s water going forward.
“We’ve got to treat the resource as it is — very valuable,” he said.