Moab snowpack exceeds median for second consecutive year

Utah’s biggest waterbodies could benefit from double-whammy winters.

(Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service) U.S. Forest Service employees encountered a large avalanche in the La Sal Mountains in early February.

The peaks of the La Sal Mountains might not appear quite as alabaster-white as last April, but don’t let that mislead you: southeastern Utah is still exiting winter with plenty of snowpack to brag about.

As of April 1, the Moab region’s snow water equivalent clocked in at 141% of the 30-year median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Utah Snow Survey report.

That’s lower than last year, when snow water equivalent reached a whopping 278%, but is still “outstanding” according to Jordan Clayton, the snow survey’s data collection officer who authors the report.

“And like last winter, the good news has been widespread and not limited to certain areas of the state,” wrote Clayton. “All of Utah’s major basins will peak at above-normal snowpack levels for the second year in a row.”

Indeed, statewide snow water equivalent on April 1 was 132% of the 30-year median. (Last year, the figure was 200%).

The numbers make 2023 and 2024 Utah’s snowiest consecutive years since 2005 and 2006 when measured by percents above normal.

Coming off the historic 2023 winter, a subsequent infusion of snow spells extra optimism for environmental factors such as soil moisture and waterbody refill, Clayton said.

What a double whammy means

The compounding benefit of consecutive wet years, Clayton said, means more replenishment in the region’s biggest reservoirs and waterbodies.

First, there’s often a “carryover” effect in soil moisture. If soils are moister during spring runoff, a higher percentage of snowpack flushes down waterways rather than getting soaked up on the way.

Clayton said Utah overall had higher soil moisture entering the 2024 winter than it did the prior year.

On April 1, soil moisture in southeastern Utah was at 46%, lower than last year’s 53%. Statewide, however, soil moisture is a little higher than last year, at 63%.

Perhaps more importantly, however, Utah’s reservoirs are still relatively full after last year’s swollen runoff. Excluding Lake Powell and Flaming Gorge Reservoir they’re 78% full — Ken’s Lake was 87% full — meaning water managers shouldn’t need to divert much water this spring, allowing it to flow into the largest impoundments.

“You’re just going to be able to move a lot more water downstream … to those larger water bodies that tend to be last in line when it comes to these handouts of water,” Clayton said. “The opportunity to recover just a little more in Lake Powell and Great Salt Lake and these others large ones is [what is] benefitted by having these back-to-back water years.”

Moab’s precipitation is above median — barely

Utah can thank another El Nino year for this year’s deep powder, according to Jeff Colton, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Under El Nino, a global atmospheric cycle, the Southwest often sees recurring storm systems. Last year, that was bolstered by a series of “atmospheric rivers” that drenched California and the western U.S. Colton said a similar pattern existed this year, but an intruding high-pressure ridge diverted much of the rainfall away from Utah.

“We saw several big storms move into California,” Colton said. “Unfortunately, unlike last year we didn’t get quite on the direct storm path so we didn’t pick up quite as much precipitation.”

Still, he said western Colorado and eastern Utah “still did fairly good this year.”

Utah overall has seen 117% of median precipitation since the start of the water year on Oct. 1 Southeastern Utah was slightly lower at 103% of median.

March, however, drenched Moab and Utah with 188% and 156% of normal precipitation, respectively.

The deluge came just in time to bolster Utah’s snowpack, as early April marks the typical start of spring runoff as warming temperatures flush snow into waterways.

Over March, forecasters also increased the runoff predictions for April through July. In southeastern Utah, forecasts for the Colorado River, Green River, Mill Creek and Monticello’s South Creek range from 99% to 146% of normal.

While forecasters aren’t as concerned about flooding this year as last, Colton said what happens is ultimately highly weather-dependent. Ideally, temperatures won’t get high and stay high; instead, they’ll modulate between warm and cool. That’s what happened last year.

“It kind of behaved,” Colton said. “And yes, we had some flooding, but it could’ve been a lot worse … Even if you have below-normal snowpack, if it warms up really fast then you have big problems.”

He added that eastern Utah’s abnormally warm February — it was between the 10th and 20th warmest ever — decimated the region’s lower-elevation snowpack, which should somewhat temper runoff.

Still, Colton said the public should stay vigilant as melting picks up in the next few weeks.

“There’s still going to be runoff. Rivers are going to come up,” he said. “There’s definitely going to be some concern.”

This story was first published by The Times-Independent.