192% of normal: Utah snowpack breaks 40-year-old record

The storms will provide much-needed relief statewide, but our drought isn’t over.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Record-breaking snow accumulations are pictured in Park City on Thursday, March 16, 2023.

Records keep piling up across Utah this winter.

Snowpack reached a new high during Friday’s storms, according to Utah Snow Survey data. The snow water equivalent in Utah, or the amount of water the snow will release when its melts, sits at 26.1 inches as of Friday afternoon. That ties with the previous known record of 26 inches set on April 13, 1983.

Expect the record to keep rising — we still have nine more days until snowpack reaches its typical peak, and there are plenty more storms in the forecast.

Graph courtesy of U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. The black line represents the current snow year.

“It is amazing, and it’s kind of cool to be here to witness it,” said Jordan Clayton, supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey.

The Snow Survey is part of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has installed SNOTEL sites across Utah and other Western states. Those stations regularly beam information on snow depths, snow density, soil moisture and temperature.

Clayton noted the uncharted amount of snowpack we’ll see this week is only applicable to the era since SNOTEL sites were installed starting in 1980.

“We have some historical data that go back into the 1940s,” Clayton said, which his team is reviewing. “But those were only monthly values.”

The state’s snowpack busted through its first record this year on March 13, when it bested the previous snow water equivalent max for that date. As of last week, about 15 of Utah’s SNOTEL stations measured their own local record-high snowpacks since installation.

“It’s going to be a lot higher than that number now” after recent storms, Clayton said. “It’s really, across the board, a record-breaking winter, and it doesn’t show any signs of letting up.”

Snow totals statewide currently sit at 192% of normal. And all the state’s watersheds are getting buried.

Areas within the Great Salt Lake’s basin sit between 159% and 231% of normal. Most of the drainages in southern Utah have at least double the snow they’d typically see this time of year. Southeastern Utah sits at a gigantic 270% of normal. The Raft watershed in the northwest corner of the state, which drains into the Snake River, has the lowest snow totals at 126% of normal.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service Utah Snow Survey.

The seemingly nonstop snow storms will provide communities some much-needed relief this spring after years of crippling drought.

“We ended last year’s snowpack at about 86% of normal,” Clayton said.

Soil moisture in the state is high, which means more runoff will make it to rivers and reservoirs instead of getting sucked up by a parched landscape.

Water managers are busy preparing for this spring’s deluge.

“Our systems are in a deficit,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “Our reservoirs are low, we’ve seen our groundwater aquifers drop. To get a really good, wet year like this to refill reservoirs and recharge aquifers is just phenomenal.”

Snow scientists and water managers keep repeating a mantra, however — one good winter is not enough to rescue Utah from its drought.

“We have to think holistically,” Clayton said. “If we want to put water in the Great Salt Lake and not just upstream reservoirs, we’re going to need multiple winters like this.”

The Great Salt Lake is up by about 2.5 feet since it bottomed out at a record-low in November. But it’s still slightly lower than it was at this time last year.

Graph courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

The colossal snowpack also won’t erase multiple dry winters that have plunged mega-reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead to dangerously low levels along the Colorado River.

Lake Powell currently sits about three feet lower than it did at this time last year.

Graph courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

“We always should be using water efficiently, wisely, and as good stewards of that resource,” Renstrom said. “We’d need several years like this to be out of the drought.”

Utahns can help stretch this year’s surplus by waiting a few extra weeks to turn on their sprinkling systems. All the moisture means lawns and gardens won’t need it. It’s also a great year to rip out turf and replace it with more desert-friendly and water-wise options.

“Usually when you install new landscaping, you have to apply a lot of water to get those plants established,” Renstrom said. “But because the soil is already so wet, you don’t have to apply that water.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of Utah in moderate to severe drought. Portions of Sevier and Wayne counties are in extreme drought.

Image from U.S. Drought Monitor.