Water supply outlook report: Utah off to a dry start in 2022

A lack of snowfall has created more setbacks as the state continues to struggle with a “megadrought.”

Source: U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service

Utah saw hardly a dusting of snow in its first months of the new year, wiping out any gains storms blew in at the end of 2021.

The Bear, Weber, Provo-Jordan and Tooele Valley basins are looking especially bare, with snowpacks below 80% of normal according to the latest Water Supply Outlook Report by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Statewide, snow-water equivalent is at 82% of normal and February brought only 34% of its usual precipitation. Still, Utah’s precipitation is hovering near average for this time of year at 101%, mostly due to early-season storms in October and December.

“We’re still holding out hope that March will bring much-needed snow,” Jordan Clayton, with the NRCS Utah Snow Survey, wrote in the report. “As one of Utah’s wettest months, Utah typically gets around 3 inches of precipitation in the mountains during March, which amounts to roughly 11% of the annual total.”

But the state will need an additional 13 inches beyond the historical water year average to eke itself out of years of accumulated shortages, NRCS reports.

Reservoir storage in the state is at 53% of capacity, down 14% from this time last year. And NRCS is predicting a dismal runoff season — with some stream flows as low as 20% of normal — unless more winter storms roll in.

In southern Utah, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects that Lake Powell will sink below 3,525 feet in March. That elevation will trigger new mitigation efforts to funnel more water to the reservoir before the Glen Canyon Dam loses its ability to generate hydropower. Water could dip as much as 2 feet beyond the threshold, although the bureau predicts spring runoff will replenish those losses by May.

“This year, the Colorado River Basin has experienced extremely variable conditions with a record high snowpack one month, followed by weeks without snow,” said Reclamation’s acting commissioner, David Palumbo. “This variable hydrology and a warmer, drier West have drastically impacted our operations, and we are faced with the urgent need to manage at the moment.”

In an interview last month, Wei Zhang, an assistant professor in Utah State University’s Department of Plants, Soils and Climate, said climate models continue to predict warmer and drier trends in the West.

“I’m not confident this year will end the drought conditions,” Zhang said, “so I think we need to pay more attention to how to conserve water.”

Zhang recently published research in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that identified patterns in Utah’s persistent dry trends. Instead of an increase in high-pressure events, which bring warmer temperatures and dry conditions, the state has seen fewer of the low-pressure systems that bring cold weather and snow (while also sweeping out the Salt Lake Valley’s notorious inversions).

“We further attribute that to climate change,” Zhang said. “There are less and less low-pressure systems, and that is mainly attributed to human activities.”

Read the full NRCS Utah Water Supply Outlook Report below.