Worst drought since 1989; Virgin River near record-breaking low

Record low flow levels have been reported in the Virgin River, section shown runs between Bloomington neighborhood and SunRiver Golf Club, St. George, Utah, June 13, 2014 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Virgin River, Washington County’s primary water source, is near its lowest level in recorded history. The current state of the river, which has seen generally declining flows for the past 15 years, is the main symptom of Washington County’s ongoing drought.

Washington County Surface Water Graph from the June 2014 Utah Climate and Water Report, Washington County, Utah, June 2014 | Image courtesy of Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

“There is no question, we’re in a really bad drought,” Washington County Water Conservancy District General Manager Ron Thompson said.

Thompson has been monitoring Washington County water data and river levels since the 1980s. He said he’s never seen the river lower than it is right now. To put it into perspective, this year’s base Virgin River flow up to this point is approximately 30 percent less than usual, Thompson said.

The most current compilation of official water data was released in a Utah Climate and Water Report June 1. According to the report, the Virgin River system’s base river flow has only been lower one time in recorded history. However, this year’s conditions are only slightly better than the drought year 15 years ago. On a 100-point scale – 100 being the wettest year to date and zero being the driest year to date – currently we’re at a 7, and we’re in the midst of the second driest year to date, only behind 1989.

Graph from the June 2014 Utah Climate and Water Report, Washington County, Utah, June 2014 | Image courtesy of Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

The Virgin River system in Washington County has less total surface water availability than it has had in 15 years, according to the water report compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Total surface water availability is a combination of water levels in the river systems and reservoirs in the county.

This year, the Virgin River system had a particularly low snowpack. In March, snowpack for southwest Utah was reported at 46 percent of normal.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a year like this where there just wasn’t snowpack,” Thompson said.

Graph from the June 2014 Utah Climate and Water Report, Washington County, Utah, June 2014 | Image courtesy of Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a state of natural disaster in various counties across Utah and 10 other states due to prolonged drought conditions. Twelve counties were listed in Utah, including Washington, Iron, Kane and San Juan.

Besides one major snowstorm in December 2013, the area hardly received any precipitation this past winter, Thompson said, other than a few little rainstorms.

Luckily, May brought showers. May was an unusually wet month as far as precipitation goes – 142 percent above average, according to the report. Now, the grass and the watershed looks good, Thompson said, but still the stream flows are really low all across the Virgin River system.

Stream flow is important, since the majority of Washington County’s population relies almost solely on the Virgin River for water. However, the population does get a small portion of water from the Santa Clara River.

The Santa Clara River is dependent almost solely on the snowpack of Pine Valley Mountain. The Virgin River flow is dependent on snowpack from areas like Cedar Mountain, Kolob and Webster Flat. These high elevation areas all drain back down through the north and east forks of the Virgin River – and this past winter’s snowpack has delivered a measly stream flow.

Washington county soil moisture Graph from the June 2014 Utah Climate and Water Report, Washington County, Utah, June 2014 | Image courtesy of Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

The low flow is no surprise to Thompson, who said we’ve seen a clear downward trend in Virgin River water levels for the past 15 years. In fact, over that span of time, the median Virgin River flow has gone down almost 40 cubic feet per second, or CFS, Thompson said. CFS is a measurement used when tracking streamflow. One CFS translates to about 450 gallons of flow a minute.

“There’s probably more than enough (water) for this year and next,” Thompson told the St. George City Council during its March 6 meeting. Still, he added, he does not expect that any reservoir will be full this year.

Upon encouragement from the water district, St. George City recently implemented mandatory water restrictions, which is part of Stage 1 of its drought management plan.

“We’d like to encourage people to conserve,” Thompson said. “I think that when you’re in these kinds of situations we need people to work with us and save as much water as possible.”

The district’s website includes resources to help local property owners conserve water. The district is also offering free water checks to residents who want customized input on how to best conserve water at their residences.

Also tracked in the Utah Climate and Water report for Washington County:

  • Seasonal precipitation accumulation, which is 58 percent of average
  • Soil moisture, which is at 57 percent of average compared to 53 percent last year
  • Total reservoir storage, which is at 44 percent of capacity compared to 48 percent last year


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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.


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  • Ron June 18, 2014 at 6:57 am

    Yes, but hey, all those lawns and golf courses are looking good!

    • Brian June 18, 2014 at 8:44 am

      Yeah, the Ledges golf course uses more water in a day than Winchester Hills (approximately 400 homes) uses in a month (this is based on actual figures, not speculation). At least with a drought Ron Thompson has a good excuse to continue his kingdom-building (not that he needs one, apparently). The water conservancy district is an abomination. I’m not an environmentalist, but I am a conservationist and take seriously the stewardship we have over the earth. But that isn’t what WCWCD is about. It’s about power and control.

      • Whose Baby? June 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

        Whose baby was the Ledges? Didn’t someone name Gardner have something to do with land swaps/trades/sells to develop the Ledges?

        • Brian June 18, 2014 at 12:23 pm

          Yup. They’re all in this together. The southern corridor (past the airport) didn’t get put in until they all had time to buy up land in strategic places. Same with the northern corridor (future), and powell pipeline (hopefully never). They’re following the harry reid plan.

  • Kinasava June 18, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    Very well written and researched article. Good job.

  • JAR June 18, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Besides the Iron Man, Senior Games, National Parks,Marathon crowd, etc., Golf is a ‘Big Contributor’ to financial well being of the area. Use your heads folks.
    Granted, I moved here for family reasons but also for the great golf at affordable cost.
    Go talk to the average old f_ _T who moved into the vast Sun retirement community. FORE!

    • OBAMAS COMMIN' TO TAKE THE GUNS!!! June 18, 2014 at 4:31 pm

      Golf is a wealthy old white man’s game. Doesn’t do much at all for the local “economy”. Retirees are gonna flock here with or without golf…

    • concerned citizen June 18, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      You’re right, we ought to waste millions of gallons of water keeping golf courses green.
      Or, here’s a better idea, why doesn’t the county and water conservation district get their heads out of their rear ends, drop the stupid lake powell pipeline project, invest in some water reclamation and use treated wastewater on the golf courses and parks? They do it in Phoenix, Vegas and all over the place. While they’re at it, why not pass some real measures to encourage water conservation? How about telling businesses to install waterless urinals and low flush toilets? Maybe encourage homeowners and businesses to use xeriscape and native landscaping? Have you ever noticed how unnaturally green this area is? Get over it people, you live in the desert. If you want green, move back east.

  • But Seriously June 18, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    And the water continues to flow down the gutters of Bluff, Valley View, and many other street gutters in this town everday. There are sprinklers going at 430 in the afternoon at condos, apartments, schools, and churches. Wake up people, we live in the desert.

  • Tomany Moveins See June 18, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Hope that southern utah would get rid of all golf courses built after 1995 and also have all the people leave you moved in after that date. One thing all you brain surgeons need to remember most golf course property was purchased from farmers who sold the water rights with the land. So it doesn’t matter if it was watering a golf course or aleph alpha it wouldn’t have any say in the matter. In fact unless you yourself own water rights you may want to kiss the acres of the ones that do. You think gas is high priced think about buying water from the ones that own it and let you use it for a minimum fee next time you flush, shower for more than 4 minutes, let water run when you brush your teeth, wash car and leave the hose running.

  • Bender June 18, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    We have enough water in Southern Utah to double and even triple our population with current supplies. What we don’t have is fair pricing of water.
    Your local politicians and influential real-estate holders have foisted a socialistic method of paying for water on the public. There is no incentive to conserve because the cost of water is held artificially low by property taxes and building permit fees. ONLY when each gallon of water is priced at the fully burdened cost of delivery will we conserve.
    Look no further than the above if you want proof that you are being played for suckers by local politicians, and the real estate developers who pull their strings, who preach capitalism and free markets but whose actual behavior is akin to the socialists they claim to despise.

  • Jeff June 18, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Really disappointing to see comments from people that don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

    Our Golf courses generate a lot of revenue. People come here to play golf. Because they are playing a “wealthy old white man’s game” at least we’re attracting a desirable group and the ones that have money to spend.

    The last time we were asked to conserve water we did such a good job they raised the rates because their revenue dropped.

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