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A third season of low snow looming for parched Utah

Published January 7, 2014 6:42 pm

Weather • Below-average snowpack would mean bad news for farmers' crops and a higher risk of wildfires.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

To say that the Utah's mid-winter snowpack is disappointing is an understatement.

For the third year in a row, the state's snowpack is doing poorly. Northern Utah's mountains are around 71 percent of normal; the peaks directly east of Salt Lake County are at 69 percent.

Southern Utah's snowpack is nearer average, but that could quickly change for the worse, especially if their more recent pattern of tiny storms keeps up, said Randall Julander, snow survey supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When the snowpack is at 75 percent or below at the start of the new year, the levels will likely improve a bit — but the probability of the snowpack returning to average is at most 10 percent, Julander explained.

"Everybody's going to be praying for a home run in the ninth inning, and I'm praying too," Julander said Tuesday. "But it's exactly that. We're a long ways down from where we hoped to be."

The state would need to see a couple major storms each month and at least one little storm each week to reach normal, Julander said. But that seems unlikely: the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center forecasts above-normal temperatures and dry conditions for the remainder of the winter.

"It's January and anything is possible. There's just not a whole lot of things that are probable," Julander said.

Even though a slowly building winter storm system arrived Tuesday, with a stronger, second pulse set to arrive Thursday night, a high pressure ridge will set in soon after and keep the state dry into the third week of January.

That kind of dry air is responsible for the low snow turnout this season. For the past few months, high pressure has pushed the storms the state normally would have seen northward toward Canada instead, said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. Just next door, Colorado is near normal with its snow.

Every day that passes with below average snow, the runoff picture worsens. Some of the reservoirs in the Weber River system are down 25 percent. "If this pattern continues and there is no gigantic, major shift, we're going to produce below average runoff," McInerney said.

That could mean severely curtailed crops, water restrictions in cities earlier in the year and increased risk of wildfires because of all the dry vegetation, Julander said.

Salt Lake County's water supply is at 55 percent of normal, according to a weather service report released Tuesday. Farther north, the water supply is slightly better, hovering around 65 percent, while areas of Southern Utah are best off at 84 to 95 percent.

The lack of water hurts recreation, too. Pineview Reservoir is noticeably low, and some boaters might find they have to replace their motors after cutting through newly shallow territory, Julander said.

Ski resorts are not too concerned, though. Representatives for Park City, Canyons, Solitude and Alta all reported satisfactory snow levels, with all or almost all of their runs remaining open.

For more extensive forecast information, visit the Tribune's weather page at http://www.sltrib.com/weather.

— Tribune reporter Bob Mims contributed to this story.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

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