Yes, we just had a storm, but here’s why Utah drought fears persist

Dry winter left snowpacks at 79% of normal and some reservoirs way down.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The Colorado River flows into Lake Powell near Hite Marina on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Utah's largest reservoir is less than 40% full.

Coming out of another drier-than-usual winter, it is not looking good for Utah’s water supply — despite the latest spring storm — with snowpacks peaking last month at 79% of normal, according to a report released this week.

The state’s snowpacks peaked March 27, about 10 days earlier than usual, with an average of 12.6 inches of snow-water equivalent, and have been shrinking fast in the face of record-high temperatures in recent days. That’s a far cry from two years ago, when Utah snowpacks were twice as thick as normal in some places.

“Utah’s poor snowpack conditions, extremely dry soils, and low antecedent streamflow are expected to impact runoff conditions,” states the monthly report compiled by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. “Streamflow forecasts for April to July snowmelt runoff volume are generally between 25% and 70% of average.”

The report is based on data gathered at 135 sites, known as Snotel stations, around the state. With soils far drier than normal, some of this spring’s runoff is expected to be absorbed into the ground before reaching reservoirs. Soils are currently, on average, 40% saturated, or about two-thirds of normal.

To make matters worse, Utah reservoirs are already depleted, currently at 69% capacity, or 14 percentage points lower than last year. Gunnison Reservoir in the San Pitch Basin is pretty much empty, while many others in the hardest-hit southwestern reaches of the state are less than half full, or more than half empty, depending on how you prefer to look at it.

Either way, Utah is in the grips of a prolonged dry spell that is expected to result in reduced water deliveries to some growers and calls on residents across the state to reduce their water use.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed an emergency order last month declaring a state of emergency due to drought conditions. He urged Utahns to conserve water by, among other steps, fixing leaks, cutting shower times, and waiting to run full loads in dishwashers and washing machines.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall put the city under a Stage 1 conservation advisory, putting the public on notice about possible future water shortages.

“As a whole,” the NRSC reported, “we expect Utah to experience well-below average water supply conditions for the 2021 water year.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Highlighted in the report is a concerning trend for Utah water users and skiers: The spring melt starts earlier than in the past. That indicates snowpacks are not holding their moisture as long, resulting in less water reaching reservoirs. Two Snotel sites in southwestern Utah peaked at less than 3 inches of water and were completely melted by April, along with many other sites.

According to new research from the University of Colorado, early runoff — more evidence of the planet’s warming climate — is becoming a growing problem across the West. The study examined data from 1,065 Snotel sites going back 40 years.

Melt occurring before April 1 had increased at more than half these site by an average of 3.5% per decade, according to the paper posted Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change. In fact, snow appears to be melting throughout the winter in many places, meaning there will be less water available for use later in the summer.

“Historically, water managers use the date of April 1 to distinguish winter and spring, but this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred as melt increases during the winter,” said co-author Noah Molotch, an associate professor of geography and fellow at Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Utah’s snowpack scenario varies across the state with the eastern basins recording snowpacks slightly above average. The state’s thickest snowpack was recorded at Snowbird, outside Salt Lake City, with nearly 30 inches of water, and Ben Lomand Peak and Tony Grove each clocked in at 26.5 inches, which is still below average for the northern Wasatch Mountains.

Precipitation recorded at the Snotel sites was 71% of normal for the water year that began Oct. 1

Over the 41 years NRCS has been tracking Utah’s snowpacks, this year ranks 34th for the water values recorded at the Snotel sites.