Why all that snow we’re shoveling may not rescue Utah from a bad water year

Empty streams and dry farms are being mentioned as data from “Snotel” monitoring sites keeps piling up.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jordan Clayton, supervisor with Utah Snow Survey for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) shown with his dog Gus, at the Daniels Strawberry Snotel or snow telemetry network site, Feb. 3, 2021. The tall tower is equipped with wind, temperature, snow depth and solar radiation sensors. The brown tower, left, is a precipitation gage. All the sensors send information to the equipment shelter, right, where the data is uploaded to the NRCS. Snotels are located in often remote, high-elevation mountain watersheds and monitor snowpack, precipitation, soil moisture, temperature, and other climatic conditions affecting Utah's watersheds. Since roughly 95% of Utah's water supply comes from snowmelt, Snow Survey staff use Snotel data to forecast summer water supply conditions in the state's watersheds.

Daniels Summit • Old Man Winter has been busy of late, bringing much-needed relief to Utah’s dangerously low snowpacks.

But don’t let the piles of fresh snow fool you. After near-record low precipitation over the past year, Utah water supplies remain in serious trouble even with the recent return of long-absent wet weather.

“We are definitely seeing significant improvement from this storm,” Jordan Clayton, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Wednesday. However, “it’s not the end-all, be-all for our drought and snowpack situation. In all likelihood, we are still going to have below-average snowpack by the time we get to April 1. We are still anticipating a well-below-average runoff.”

[Read more: Here are some simple tips you can take to help conserve water in Utah.]

Snowpacks in the Wasatch, Uinta, Bear River and other ranges store frozen water that reservoirs capture in the spring for use by Utah residents and farmers through summer. The moisture held in the mountains remains so shallow in places that some water watchers fear low runoff could result in streams running dry and farms going dry.

Some are already hurting.

“I’ve been hauling water to my cows since October,” Kane County rancher Monte Griffen said early last week. “Because it hasn’t rained in 12 months, I’ve been hauling water every other day.”

The latest water supply outlook survey, issued monthly by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), reported that the snow-water equivalent, or SWE, in Utah snowpacks was just two-thirds of normal as of Feb. 1. Recents storms improved those measurements over the past week, of course, particularly in the Central Wasatch, which captures water used by Salt Lake City.

“While the snow-water equivalent is looking much better than it did two weeks ago, the current estimate in our local watershed is 77% of average in Big Cottonwood to 91% in Parleys, which is great, but the soil moisture is super low,” said Laura Briefer, director of the city’s public utilities. “A lot of that runoff is going to be sucked into the ground.”

The six creeks that feed the city and its neighbors are projected to see runoff as low as a third of normal, she said. Even with the latest storms, officials anticipate invoking Stage 1 of the city’s five-stage water shortage contingency plan, which steps up public education without imposing mandatory cutbacks in water use.

Under this “advisory” stage, residents would be asked to redouble ongoing conservation efforts, such as running dishwashers and washing machines only when they are fully loaded, avoiding unnecessary toilet flushing, shortening shower times and reducing lawn watering.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jordan Clayton, supervisor with Utah Snow Survey for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), discusses the snowpack at the Daniels Strawberry Snotel, or snow telemetry network site, Feb. 3, 2021.

How far Utah is behind on water

The water supply report is based on data recorded at scores of mountain locations across the state, including the Daniels Summit site on the divide between the Provo and Duchesne river basins.

Earlier this month, Clayton stood thigh deep in light snow as he plunked down his equipment at this “Snotel” monitoring site, just off U.S. Highway 40. It was Groundhog Day, but it felt more like May than February. The snowpack here was 7 inches thinner than normal that day, but the snow was so light that it held only half the amount of water it normally would at that point in the winter. That means the already depleted Strawberry Reservoir, which supplies Wasatch Front cities, could be in trouble.

“It will experience a below-normal runoff unless we get a monster snowpack, and right now it doesn’t look like we’ll get that,” said Clayton, who oversees the NRCS snow-monitoring program in Utah.

It may have seemed like there was a lot of snow here, but the amount of water the snowpack held was well below what is normally here in early February at this aspen-crowned site overlooking Strawberry Valley. The 28 inches of snow translated to 6 inches of water. (By Feb. 17, however, the water content rose to 8.9 inches, or 76% of average, thanks to a storm cycle that covered northern Utah.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

NRCS maintains 135 “Snotel” sites across Utah to collect and transmit data about the snowpack with the aim of predicting how much water will reach reservoirs in the spring. The instruments record the amount of water in the snow and soils and then transmit the readings hourly. Hydrologists use the data to compile a monthly water supply outlook report. The latest monthly assessment was bleak.

“We need more snow!” shouted February’s report.

Days later, nature began delivering, but, at the time, the report’s snow-water equivalent was less than two-thirds of normal across the state. It rose to 80% by Feb. 17; the hardest-hit drainages are the Virgin, Price and Southeastern Utah, at 62%, 68%, and 69% of normal, respectively.

“With about two months remaining until our typical snowpack peak, our statewide SWE needs to improve by 9.4 inches to achieve normal conditions, which now only has about a 10% likelihood of occurring,” stated the report, which reflected data gathered until Feb. 1. Even worse was the lack of moisture in the soils, averaging just 25% saturation, or about half of normal.

Combined with warm temperatures, these conditions were expected to result in runoff volumes as low as a quarter of what normally flows off Utah’s mountains. Reservoirs were already way low, at 65% capacity on average and down 15 percentage points from last year. Lake Powell, the state’s largest reservoir, has hovered around 40% capacity for the past two years.

Carly Burton, executive director of the Utah Water Users Association, summed it all up in a single word: “Grim.”

That gloomy news held especially true for agriculture, which accounts for 80% of Utah’s water consumption. Producers who lack access to water storage, for instance, could expect to run out by July 1.

“It’s that bad. And what that means in terms of economics, especially for farmers that raise alfalfa, they may only get one or two cuttings instead of their normal three or four,” Burton said. “They’ll probably have to look at changing their crop patterns, and that’s going to be a big economic hardship on our ag community, even the ones that have reservoir storage.”

Alfalfa is Utah’s most important crop, planted on 510,000 acres that yielded 2.2 million tons in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Providing essential supplemental feed for livestock, that year’s harvest was worth nearly $400 million.

“The allocations are going to be down probably 50% or lower,” Burton said.

How Utah farms, ranches are faring

This year’s water worries are a continuation of a warming and drying pattern that has gripped the West since 2000, believed to be the result of climate change driven by greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere.

These climate trends are disrupting life on the land and the people who depend on it, said Mistie Christiansen, who oversees the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency programs in Emery and Carbon counties.

“Ponds are dry; streams are dry; springs that would normally have supplied livestock and rangeland are dry; rivers are historically low,” she told InsideClimate News. “It’s the compound factor of multiple years of this issue that’s really hard. People are really struggling.”

Ranches and farms that depended on irrigation from Muddy Creek in Emery County ran out of water by July last year. Christiansen’s family cut just one crop of hay instead of the usual three and had to spend $45,000 to buy more to feed livestock. This year, the family expects to spend at least $30,000 to make up for what the desiccated land cannot provide. The cows, meanwhile, are weaker and pregnancy rates are down.

Based on the string of rough years and how conditions look now, Christiansen wouldn’t be surprised to see another bad year for livestock growers.

“And if things don’t change,” she warned, “you’ll see a major sell-off.”

Dustin Christensen grows alfalfa, corn and some small grains, such as barley and wheat, on his 1,000-acre farm north of Richfield with his son.

They get their irrigation water from the upper Sevier River’s Otter Creek and Piute reservoirs, both less than half full. Christensen was not expecting to get much water beyond July.

“February and March are typically our wettest months so there’s still hope, but we are in a huge deficit for sure,” Christensen said. “There will be some available — how much, we don’t know yet. I don’t think there’s enough to get us through the summer by any means.”

Christensen was pleased with the precipitation that began falling steadily in the past week or two, but he remained unsure it would be enough to sustain a bountiful harvest of alfalfa, which requires a great deal of water.

“If we’re out of water, say, the first of July, you might make one really good cutting and possibly a little bit of a second, but there won’t be any third or fourth,” he said. “The economic impact of not being able to get through the summer is a huge thing.”

In northern Utah, Jordanelle Reservoir was 69% full, according to Gene Shawcroft, general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, which operates eight reservoirs funneling water to Wasatch Front cities.

“That means we are 50,000 acre-feet lower than a year ago. In order to get about 100,000 acre-feet, which is what it would take to fill the reservoir, we would have to get 25 inches of water in the snowpack at Trial Lake,” Shawcroft said earlier this month. “Today we have 8.5 inches, normally we would have 12.5 inches there.”

Because his district’s reservoirs are so large, they have enough carryover capacity to get through this lean year.

“That’s the blessing of the Central Utah Project [which includes Strawberry and Starvation reservoirs]. We are still in a pretty good position. I don’t see us having to cut back at all. It looks like we will be able to provide the full allotment,” said Shawcroft, who serves as Utah’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “We are situated in a position that is not dire, but we would certainly love to see more snow.”

Where crews measure the snow

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jordan Clayton, supervisor with Utah Snow Survey for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), pieces together a federal snow sampler, used to measure snow depth and water content to determine snow density, Feb. 3, 2021.

For nearly a century, water officials have been tracking snow depths at various high-elevation locations around Utah to give water managers and farmers a forecast of what to expect for water availability. These remote sites initially were visited only three times a winter. Hydrologists used metal tubes, known as federal snow samplers, to pull out a column from the snowpack to measure its depth and water content.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the NRCS retrofitted these sites with solar-powered instruments that take hourly readings of the snowpack’s depth, snow-water equivalent and temperature. Now called Snotels, a contraction of the term “snow telemetry,” these sites constantly transmit their data for all to see on the Snotel website.

At a cost of about $25,000 each, the sites are equipped with a tower supporting various instruments and solar panels, a precipitation can, and a shed housing electronics and transmission components. The locations were selected in areas that hold snow longer.

“The whole name of the game is that we’re trying to correlate that snow-water equivalent to the amount of water we’re seeing in the streams. The longer we have snow into the spring, the longer we can extend that correlation. If it all melts out by the end of April, we’re done. There’s no more predictive power moving forward,” Clayton said. “So we try to find sites that will retain the snow well into June, even into July.”

Thus, most sites face north, are protected by trees, and aren’t scoured by the wind. Many are remote, reachable only by snowmobile in winter. One is a 16-mile trek inside the High Uintas Wilderness. The stations are checked periodically for maintenance and to ensure the accuracy of the instruments.

The NRCS has been adding new sites in upper elevations, such as one near Wolf Creek Pass last summer, to get a more refined picture of Utah snowpacks.

Sites occasionally get burned, including three during the busy 2012 fire season. The Brown Duck Snotel site, on the Uintas’ south slope near Hanna, burned in the East Fork Fire, among Utah’s largest blazes in 2020, charring about 70,000 acres in the Ashley National Forest.

The Snotel program has its roots in service to the agricultural community, but today more than half the users of its data have little to do with growing food, according to Clayton. Increasingly, recreationists — particularly snowmobilers, boaters and anglers — find ways to put the information to work.

“We get a lot of bang for the buck,” Clayton said.

How dry soils are absorbing water

Along with snow measurements, the sites document meteorological conditions and soil moisture at varying depths of 2, 8 and 20 inches. The different depths reveal different aspects of the soil’s condition.

“The 2-inch soil moisture gives you a lot of useful information about what’s going on right at the surface. That can tell you a little bit about the potential for fire risk. The 8 inch tells you a lot more about how much moisture there is at the root zone and how viable the soil is for plant growth. The 20 inch is the most useful from a drought perspective,” Clayton said. “Now we’re getting into the deeper portion where you don’t see a lot of day-to-day change, but you do see massive changes from season to season, depending on what the water year’s been like.”

At Daniels Summit, soil saturation readings in the latest monthly report were even worse than statewide averages: 16.3% at 2 inches; 11.7% at 8 inches; and 3.6% at 20 inches. These numbers indicated that a lot of the snowpack there will soak into the ground without ever reaching Strawberry Reservoir.

“What we’re concerned about right now is that across the state we have soils that are so dry, really off-the-charts dry compared to what we’ve seen over the last 15 years,” Clayton said. “We’re concerned about the moisture from the snow just being absorbed in the soil column before it can actually reach our streams and rivers where we can replenish our reservoirs.”

So even if big storms bring snowpacks up to normal levels, they won’t translate into brimming reservoirs.

“We’re going to need to have a well-above-average snowpack just to get reasonably average runoff,” Clayton said. “And it’s not looking like that.”

Another factor working against a robust spring runoff is warming temperatures, especially some of the lows, which are not as cold as they used to be due to climate change. Accordingly, the snowpack gets “ripe” earlier than water managers would like.

“Ripe is a condition when the entire snowpack has the same density,” Clayton said. “It takes a little bit more energy to get it to make that phase change and turn into water.”

Driven by a warming climate in recent decades, Utah’s spring runoff starts a few weeks sooner than it used to, and that’s a problem.

“We like to see the runoff wait, if you will, until as long as it can and then come all at once— unless you’re getting into a flood situation,” Clayton said. “In most water years, unless you have a big snowpack, it’s most efficient when [the water is] conveyed over a narrow window of time. When you’re spreading it out over a long spring period, then you’re going to lose a larger percentage.”

InsideClimate News reporter Judy Fahys contributed to this article.