Utah snowpack packed with water, but reservoirs remain low

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A buried car reveals the snow accumulations in the high country as people enjoy a bluebird day at Solitude Mountain Resort on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019.

Skiers and farmers are rejoicing as Utah receives a desperately needed reprieve this winter from a multiyear drought, with moisture accumulating at rates not seen since 2011.

But, more important, snow is stacking up in the mountains at depths double last year’s meager totals. And it’s staying there, thanks to cooler-than-usual temperatures, according to federal scientists speaking Friday at a monthly water users meeting.

The snow-water equivalent for Utah mountains range from 114 percent to 172 percent of average for this point in the year, said Troy Brosten of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“The snowpack has just been fantastic across the state. We are getting really good coverage,” Brosten said at the meeting held at the National Weather Service offices in Salt Lake City.

Since Feb. 1, some parts of southern Utah have received up to 12 inches of snow-water equivalence.

“That Virgin River is going to be great,” Brosten said.

Except for the northeast slope of the Uinta Mountains, above-average snow accumulations have been recorded across the state.

The gathering heard from hydrologists and meteorologists from four federal agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which threw a little water on the meeting’s celebratory mood. Reservoirs remain low, particularly the state’s largest, Lake Powell, said Gary Henrie, an engineer with the bureau’s Provo office.

“Reservoirs lag a little bit. What we see in the reservoirs’ current condition is a result of last year’s bad year,” he said. “We are in rougher shape today than we were at this time last year.”

Storage remains at 64 percent of capacity, down from 80 percent.

Utah may have experienced one of its warmest, driest years on record last year, but its reservoirs were still feeling the effects of the previous year’s robust snowpack. The bounty did not last under last summer’s hot, cloudless days.

“We drew on the reservoirs early last year,” Henrie said. “We didn’t have water in the rivers to rely on.”

Powell remains near a record low of 39 percent of capacity. It is expected to bump up to 41 percent, but the outlook is not promising for a full rebound.

This reservoir is fed mostly by rivers flowing from Colorado, where precipitation has not been as strong, according to Brian McInerney of the National Weather Service.

“We had some of the biggest areas of drought two months ago in southeast Utah," he said, “but that has shifted to Colorado and New Mexico.”

Last year, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared a drought emergency in the face of disappearing streams and dried-up rangelands that had ranchers liquidating their herds. Hardest hit were southern counties, which had gotten the short end of the precipitation stick, but this winter has seen a reversal of that pattern.

“As we slide south, things are improving, water supplies are improving, snowpack is improving,” McInerney said. “When you look at the years we’ve had in the past, it’s been the opposite.”

This week’s warm spell notwithstanding, recent cold temperatures have the hydrologist excited.

“We haven’t had to worry about melting snow where we have in the past,” McInerney said. “We have snow at lower elevations. We’ll see how this plays out with the rest of the winter. We will have a little bit warmer air mass moving in between these events. Hopefully, it’s not too much where we start pre-ripening snow.”