Skiers, snowboarders and the mountains alike are benefiting from the early season snowfall in Utah, and while state water officials are excited to see the wet weather, they remain cautious.
The water year, which began on Oct 1., is off to a strong start as frequent winter storms in late October through November have helped establish the snowpack. The majority of Utah’s water supply, around 95%, comes from the snowpack. Water officials are hoping the trend continues as the drought persists.
“People tend to think one good storm will pull us out of drought, but it actually takes many storms over the entire winter to reach average,” Candice Hasenyager, the director of the Division of Water Resources, said in a Nov. 10 drought update. “With several years of drought behind us, it will likely take several years to recover.”
Laura Haskell, a drought expert with the Division of Water Resources, said the early season snow is a good thing, but noted that it also happened last water year, when the snowpack was around 75% of what’s typical.
There was wet weather last October, but conditions began to dry up in November. Storms returned in December, helping to boost the snowpack, but they nearly ceased in January and February. One mediocre winter wouldn’t be bad on its own, Haskell said, but conditions need to improve to alleviate the years of shortcomings and help pull Utah out of the drought.
The difference now is that the cold temperatures appear to be staying, allowing the snow to keep longer. Haskell said there are no real indicators from the National Weather Service of major changes in the forecast, although temperatures are expected to increase somewhat.
The warming causes the snowpack to begin melting early, which makes the spring runoff less effective. Soil moisture is crucial to spring runoff and October is usually a cool, wet month that brings the moisture levels up, according to the drought update. Dry conditions and higher-than-normal temperatures during the first three weeks of the month led the current soil moisture to be below normal for this time of year.
However, officials aren’t seeing record dry soils that heavily impacted runoff in 2020. And once the ground freezes, the soil moisture is essentially locked in until the spring, according to Haskell.
“We’re just kind of waiting at this point. The Weather Service does have some indicators that predict it will be an average snowpack — which, after a couple of years of below average, we’ll take average,” she said. “We’re still hoping for the best, but we’re still planning just in case that doesn’t happen.”
The state has received 145% of normal precipitation as of Nov. 10. Around 52% of the state is in an extreme or exceptional drought, the second and first-worst categories, compared to 79% this time last year.
The Division of Water Resources monitors 47 Utah reservoirs, 37 of which are below 55% capacity. The figure is around the same as this time last year, but still about 9% lower than normal. The Rockport Reservoir, where Park City gets a large supply of its water, was around 59% capacity. Haskell said this is higher than last year and closer to average, but it’s because some water was transferred from the Provo River in the spring. The Jordanelle Reservoir was at 61% capacity while Smith and Morehouse was at 50%.
Water officials said it’s still early in the season and once the snow melts, they’ll have a better idea of how much water the state will receive from the snowpack, which typically peaks during the first week in April.
“We started [the previous] water year really low and the fact that we ended about the same is actually a testament to people choosing to conserve. We didn’t use as much water as we normally would,” Haskell said.