Eden • Standing high in the headwaters of the Ogden River, Utah’s snow scientists and water managers have a message: Get ready for another season of water shortages.
After nearly all of the state choked on extreme drought last year, Utah water users stepped up. In the Salt Lake City area, water customers saved billions of gallons from July to September. And those in the agricultural industry cut back their watering by as much as 75%, but it came at great financial costs for some.
With this year’s snow season nearly over, water experts say Utahns should again buckle up for a summer of parched fields and brown lawns.
“I know we always preach doom and gloom,” Darren Hess, assistant general manager for Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said during a recent tour of a snow measuring station at Powder Mountain. “It seems like we rarely have good news, but it’s been a difficult three years for us as far as this drought is concerned. ... We are looking at definite restrictions.”
The Powder Mountain station is the newest in the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL network, a system of 137 automated snow and weather reporting sites across the state. The instruments beam hourly data on snow depths, the amount of water held in the snow and levels of moisture in the soil. NRCS scientists use that data to predict how much water irrigators and water customers can expect once the snow melts.
“We already know we’re not in the best shape from a snowpack perspective this winter,” said Jordan Clayton, supervisor of the NRCS Utah Snow Survey. “It’s not as bad as it could be, but we’re at about 88% percent of normal ... statewide.”
For decades, Utah’s mountain snowpack has acted like a natural water bank — storing the resource until temperatures climb and people need to start irrigating their lawns, gardens and farms. The snowmelt trickles downhill to rivers and streams, filling up reservoirs for use throughout the hot and dry summer.
But the system hasn’t been running as smoothly in recent years due to drought and climate change. Utah has had too many consecutive years with below-average water in its bank, and it’s running a deficit. The state has hardly seen a storm since Jan. 1.
“Even though [current] snowpack is decent, we just haven’t continued to get the snow,” Hess said. “... We’re just starting out in such a hole for Mother Nature to really reverse this trend.”
Water outlook is a bit better this year
For the Ogden River and Little Bear River basins, which most of Powder Mountain’s snowmelt will feed, snowpack sits at 75% to 80% of normal. Those rivers are tributaries to the larger Weber River.
Last year, Hess said, the Weber Basin district could store only 7,000 acre-feet of water — 3% of normal — due to bone-dry conditions in the five northern Utah counties it serves.
“We really will ... store very little water this year again, unfortunately,” Hess said.
But the outlook appears slightly less dire compared to 2021. Soil moisture is up, which means more snowmelt will make it to streams and reservoirs instead of getting sucked up by the thirsty ground beneath it.
“All those October rains really helped us,” Hess said. “And then December was critical as well. We had great moisture in December.”
Still, customers in the Weber Basin should expect to take conservation measures this season. Hess expects restrictions up to 40% for agriculture, 60% for landscape watering and 10% for drinking water.
A few late spring storms could bring Utah closer to its snowpack averages and lessen the pain, Hess said, “but I don’t see a whole lot changing.”
Even quantifying what’s “average” for Utah’s water picture is a moving target as the state becomes hotter and drier.
How far do scientists look back?
NRCS scientists began installing SNOTEL sites in the late 1970s and have manually collected snowpack data since 1924. That means they have a nearly century-old log of how snow and runoff behave across the state. But when the agency reports its averages, researchers are actually relying on a 30-year snowpack median.
“There are some advantages and disadvantages to using medians. But the one thing that it does nicely is show you what the middle of the distribution is,” Clayton said. “You can say confidently, then, that half of the years have been worse and half the years have been better.”
Meteorologists also use a 30-year time period to reflect a changing climate.
“The logic behind that is that you’ve got a climate that’s essentially evolving over time. And so it’s giving you the best possible picture for what ‘normal’ is in that context,” Clayton said. “The thought is, if we if we look back all the way to the 1960s or 1950s, that’s no longer relevant ... for what we’re seeing today.”
Less grass will leave more water
Utah’s current water worries are not entirely unprecedented, however. After studying tree rings and their response to wet and dry cycles over centuries, scientists determined the last time the Beehive State experienced such a tenacious dry spell was around the time of the Dust Bowl. That was decades before most of Utah’s reservoirs and modern water infrastructure were built.
“The 1930s was the last time our storage would have been this low,” Hess said. “Previous to that, it would have been the 1630s.”
Declining snowpack and disruption to Utah’s water storage system could become the new normal, making water conservation measures an ongoing priority instead of a temporary setback. That’s why Hess supports an ambitious new law that requires meters on nearly every outdoor water connection in the state.
“It’s very hard to manage something,” Hess said, “unless you can measure it.”
It might also be time for Utahns to give up their love of verdant, green lawns.
“We need to try to limit really the amount of grass or turf in these new landscapes that are going in with all the development that’s going on,” Hess said, adding that “100% turf is not something that we really want to promote.”