Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

Low water year, high fire risk dominates legislative discussion

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

Published: Wed, Jan. 29 3:42 p.m. MST

 A Black Hawk helicopter drops fire water on the Rockport fire in Rockport, Summit County, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. The dual threats of a low water year and high fire risk are already on the minds of Utah lawmakers  just a few days into the session, despite a wet storm settling into the state over the next few days. Snowpack is below normal in Utah and the West.

A Black Hawk helicopter drops fire water on the Rockport fire in Rockport, Summit County, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. The dual threats of a low water year and high fire risk are already on the minds of Utah lawmakers just a few days into the session, despite a wet storm settling into the state over the next few days. Snowpack is below normal in Utah and the West.

(Scott Jones, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A series of blustery wet storms slated to blanket northern Utah over the next three days is doing little to douse early concerns at the Utah Legislature over drought and the looming wildfire season.

As members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriation Subcommittee plowed into base budgets on Wednesday for agencies like the Division of Water Resources and others, talk often drifted from future fiscal concerns to real-time worries.

"I am very concerned where we are going to be," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, pointing to the need to have contingency plans in place to prepare for a shorter irrigation season.

Snowpack is "significantly" below average at 70 percent of normal in Utah and reservoir storage — in some areas such as the Weber Basin system — has dipped to 35 percent of capacity.

Those numbers will present serious challenges to those who use secondary or untreated irrigation water, said Eric Millis, state water resources chief.

"They will have to adjust adaptively," he said. "Start later and end earlier."

As water supply worries continue to nag at those in charge of delivery systems, other ramifications from a low water year such as dry soils and parched vegetation will lay an early foundation for enhanced wildfire threats.

The state, however, is already gearing up for the 2014 wildfire season.

Brian Cottam, the newly-named director of the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, told committee members that its forthcoming addition of another elite hot shot crew will bolster the state's ability to fight fires.

The "Alta crew," expected to be fully trained by late spring, will add to the efforts of the division's other crew, Lone Peak, bringing the total to five hot shot crews based in Utah.

"It's just been our desire to have that higher level of resource," said spokesman Jason Curry. "We are excited and happy that we will have this."

Cottam also laid out what the suppression costs were in 2013 for the Utah wildfire season — $6.2 million — and stressed that work to mitigate early and often before a fire starts will save the state signficant money in the long run.

"I hope to change that conversation because the numbers are just astounding," he said. "We need to get out in front of this."

A report by the state's catastrophic wildfire reduction committee, in fact, asserts that for every dollar spent in prevention saves $17 in fire suppression costs.

The committee identified 14 pilot projects across the state for on-the-ground prevention efforts, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is recommending $4 million in one-time money for those projects.

High priority mitigation efforts were highlighted for a wide variety of reasons — from the importance of the watershed area and the number of homes encroaching wildland areas — to the need to protect and conserve sage grouse habitat.

The state Department of Agriculture also announced this week the availability of $1.8 million in grants to combat the spread of invasive or noxious weeds — which provide fuel for fires, rob soils of moisture and harm grazing rangelands.

Last year, 41 projects were chosen for funding. Ten of those were continuation projects from the year before, while the remainder were new projects.

In 2012, the Legislature made $1 million available for the fight of invasive species and bolstered that funding with another $1 million a year later.

Applications are due March 17, with funds that will become available by the end of July.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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1. aghast
SYRACUSE, UT,
Jan. 29, 2014

It would be cheaper and more environmentally correct to let most of the wildfires burn. I am guessing that since we don't have the water for fires the legislature is going to vote to throw money at them.

2. sanpaco
Sandy, UT,
Jan. 30, 2014

I wondered how long it would take before the news started the stories about how we're going to die of fire (not enough water) or floods (too much water) come summer.

3. JWB
Kaysville, UT,
Jan. 30, 2014

The state wants to take over federal lands. The price of water and putting out fires is more than rhetoric.

4. Syd
Salt Lake, UT,
Jan. 31, 2014

I get that the snow pack is only 70% of what is normal for this time of year, but still I have to say, "really?" It's January. Yes, typically we get the most snow between December 1- Jan. 31 but we also sometimes get snow through June. (See June 2008)I guess I would have to say let's give it a few months. You know, let's actually get through the winter and spring before we panic about there not being enough water for the summer.

5. Rob86
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
Feb. 3, 2014

Yes, Syd, it is January, but the trend has been decreasing ever since the water year began. Unless we have a mega-series of mega-storms that can make up for the accumulated snowpack deficit.

If we want water later, we need snow now.