Expect low reservoirs and high fire danger in Utah, but there is some good news

Despite early snowmelt, streams may see more runoff this spring and summer.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Ogden River, April 7, 2022. Runoff may be a bit higher this spring and summer but reservoirs are still expected to be low.

Utah’s snowmelt came fast and early this year, and it is unlikely to bring much relief to parched reservoirs across the state.

The amount of snow and rain that fell in March was 79% of normal statewide, further chipping away at the surplus of storms that boosted snowpacks late last year, according to the latest Utah Water Supply Outlook Report by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The water stored in Utah’s snow, called its snow-water equivalent, is also quickly declining due to unusually hot weather. The state reached a peak of 12 inches of snow-water equivalent March 22, which is almost two weeks earlier than normal, according to NRCS scientists.

And the snow is melting rapidly. Federal SNOTEL sites across the state, which beam hourly information about snow conditions, show that on March 23, snow-water equivalent was at 88% of normal. As of April 1, it sat at 75% of normal.

“While the melt rate slowed in the last few days of March due to storms,” Jordan Clayton, NRCS data collection officer, wrote in the report, “snowpack across the state has ripened across all elevations and at most of our SNOTEL sites, and Utah’s snowpack has responded quickly to warm temperatures since then.”

As a result, all of Utah’s major runoff basins currently have snowpacks that sit below normal, with some faring worse than others. The Tooele Valley-Vernon Creek and Escalante-Paria basins are particularly dry, sitting at 47% and 41% of their normal snow-water equivalents, respectively, as of April 5. The Raft and Beaver basins, by comparison, look relatively close to normal years at 93% and 91%. Overall, the eastern half of the state looks slightly wetter than the western half, ranging from 73% to 87% of normal snow-water equivalent. The Wasatch Front and St. George area are all below 70% of normal.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The water year begins in October, and Utah is having a fairly average year, even though the past few months have been persistently dry. The water year is 96% of average so far.

“Most of Utah’s major watersheds remain close to normal precipitation for the 2022 water year due to early season gains,” Clayton wrote. “For the longer-term picture, Utah is still experiencing the impacts of the below-normal precipitation received during water years 2020 and 2021.”

That means reservoirs keep shrinking, with storage at 56% of capacity. That’s down 12% compared with this time last year. Scientists do not expect the snowmelt currently making its way downstream to offer much of a boost.

“The majority of Utah’s basins continue to have alarmingly low [storage and forecast stream flows],” Clayton wrote, “suggesting that water supplies may be extremely limited in large portions of the state this summer.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jimmy Duke of Lake Havasu, AZ soaks in the hot pools at the mouth of the Ogden River, April 7, 2022.

Weber-Ogden, Sevier, San Pitch, Beaver and Joe’s Valley have “particularly concerning” conditions, according to snow scientists.

A bright spot is soil moisture. It currently is 31% higher than this time last year. In the 2021 runoff season, thirsty soils sopped up much of the snowmelt, meaning less runoff made it to reservoirs. With soils statewide at 68% of saturation, more water will likely flow downhill, although NRCS scientists caution that deeper mountain soils remain drier than usual.

“It remains to be seen,” Clayton stated, “how much of this year’s runoff will be lost to replenishing depleted groundwater.”

Looking ahead, the NRCS projects that earlier-than-usual snowmelt will mean a longer dry summer period, flaring up the potential for fire danger in the months ahead.