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As drought continues, Utah’s water outlook gets bleaker

The picture is becoming desperate with low snowpack, shrinking reservoirs and parched soils.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Limited snowfall has led to a diminished snowpack as low accumulations can be seen at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon where south facing slopes are showing bare spots. Already in the grip of a stubborn drought, Utah is facing a bleak water year with snow accumulations in Big Cottonwood Canyon and across the state far below normal. A hydrological monitoring station at Brighton measured just five inches of water in the snowpack, nearly half what would normally be there at the start of the new year.

Already in the grip of a stubborn drought, Utah is facing a bleak water year with snow accumulations far below normal for this point in the winter and not much incoming precipitation on the horizon.

Compounding the impact of nine straight months of dry weather is the depleted state of reservoirs and historic lack of moisture in the soils, according to the state’s latest water surveys.

“Utah’s extremely dry soils and low antecedent streamflow means that we will need a well above-average snowpack this winter to produce fairly average runoff conditions,” January’s water supply outlook report states. “Unfortunately, current snowpack levels are nowhere close to where they need to be for that.”

In recent years, Utah has been on a weather teeter-totter fluctuating between wet and dry years, but this year is shaping up to be among the most parched ever.

Released monthly through Utah’s winter and spring wet season, these reports are coordinated by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service with various state and federal agencies. They are based on data generated from 96 “Snotel” monitoring stations scattered around Utah’s mountain ranges, weather forecasts and streamflow data gathered by the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We’re starting off our snowpack season this year well below normal, currently at about 64% of normal when it comes to the amount of water that’s in the snowpack,” said NRCS hydrologist Jordan Clayton. “There’s a lot of variability across the state.”

Some Wasatch canyons, where Salt Lake City gets its water, are seeing snowpacks up to 60% of normal, while Bryce Canyon National Park, which occupies a high plateau in southern Utah, is at less than 30% with just an inch of snow on the ground.

Put off by the bony slopes, skiers did not pack Utah ski areas like they usually over the holidays, with many local skiers staying home or heading to Wyoming where the mountains were blessed with substantially more powder. At Brighton at the head of Big Cottonwood Canyon, the snow-water equivalent stands at five inches, just over half of normal, while the snow is bit more water heavy in neighboring Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The good news, if there was any to be gleaned from the water reports, is that there are still months of winter ahead and time to prepare for water shortages should current trends hold through April, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources.

“It is kind of what we’ve been anticipating. We were hoping that the winter would bring a more optimistic outlook ‚” said Rachel Shilton, the division’s section chief over river basin planning. “We have been working toward addressing this and monitoring it so that it wasn’t surprise and working on what our next steps are.”

Across the state, precipitation is 56% of average for the water year that began Oct. 1. December was another dry month in the valleys with an average of only 0.4 inches of precipitation accumulated, according to January’s Climate and Water Report, also released Friday. Two-thirds of the state remains in the Exceptional Drought (D4) category — the worst rating given.

“The silver lining to me at this point is we do still have several months of snowpack we could potentially turn around. I’m not counting on that, but I’m still hoping that we can turn around and get some more snow and improve our situation,” said Laura Haskell, the water resources division’s drought coordinator.

Generally, the best-off parts of Utah are the northern basins, especially in the Bear River drainage whose snowpack is 71% of normal.

“We’re dealing with places that are much worse off than that in terms of percent normal,” Clayton said. “In the southwest corner of the state, the percent averages, it’s closer to 30 to 40%, depending on which basin you’re looking at.”

Utah’s Snotel network is sited to provide a representative snapshot of the state’s seasonal water supply. Each Snotel, a contraction of the term “snow telemetry,” is equipped with instruments that record snow depth, water content, air temperature, precipitation and soil moisture at depths of 2, 8 and 20 inches.

The dryness in the soils is the worst recorded since the monitoring network was installed 20 years ago, portending a skimpy spring runoff because these parched soils will soak up the snowmelt, Clayton cautioned. At present, soil moistures stand at 24% saturation, or about half of normal.

“The problem with that is that those very, very dry soils will absorb most of that runoff as it comes out of the snowpack in the spring,” Clayton said. “We’re really going to need a well-above-average snowpack to just produce around an average runoff. And we’re not looking like we’re going to get anywhere close to that.”

This picture is a complete reversal from two years ago when the snowpack achieved near record accumulations, almost doubling normal in places. And last year’s snowpack at this point was double what is now.

“Around the end of March, [however] the precipitation just turned off. The water year numbers are a little bit inflated by those good few months they had at the very beginning [of last year] because the rest of it was in the tank,” Clayton said. “We’re still kind of benefiting from the great snowpack that we had two winters ago.”

Now reservoir levels are dropping at a time of year when they are normally rebounding.

“We desperately need significant snow to start piling up,” the water supply report states. Across the state, reservoir storage is just 63% of capacity, down from 78% the year before.

“The reservoirs have really been hammered,” Clayton said. “This last summer, they went way down and we’re kind of living off of an investment from a couple of winters ago that is running out.”

Duchesne basin reservoirs are in the best shape at 73% capacity, with the lower Sevier in the worst at 28%. Utah’s largest reservoir, Lake Powell remains just 41% full at 118 feet below full pool.

“Now, more than ever, we need to start being more mindful of our water use, especially in a year that’s looking as dry as this, but also in the good years,” Shilton said. “Those reservoirs are what store that water and we’re overusing it. That just takes it out of the system sooner. Any conservation messaging that we can get out is a win and it’s starting early rather than after the summertime hits.”

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