OGDEN — The warm, sunny weather of the past week comes to a screeching halt with today’s high winds and clouds, followed on Friday by a sharp drop in temperatures and winter snow.
The storm comes on the heels of a monthly Utah Water Supply report from the National Resource Conservation Service showing that Utah’s hills are drier than normal and its reservoirs still heavily depleted.
Neither is a good sign a month into the water year.
How bad is it? The report is illustrated with jokes of the “it’s so dry trees are chasing dogs” variety. Water supply experts haven’t done that since the big drought a decade ago.
Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the U.S. Weather Service, said Wednesday the winter storm should help, expected to dump from 1 to 3 feet of snow in mountain areas. Snow will extend to the valley floors.
But beyond this weekend’s storm, he said, there is no way to tell if relief is in sight. Ski resorts hoping for enough snow to open for Thanksgiving will have to hope harder.
Both government reports come after a study by the Utah Rivers Council warning that the weather trends of the past years are further evidence that climate change is permanently altering Utah’s weather.
The National Resource Conservation Service maintains a system of Snotel stations around Utah that measure the amounts of snow and rain through the water year, which begins Oct. 1.
“Here’s the Cliff Notes version,” said NRCS snow survey supervisor Randy Julander. “Number one, reservoir storage is way down. Number two, soil moisture is way down. Number three, stream flow is also down and, number four, we’d really, really, really like a good winter.”
Current reservoir storage is 58 percent statewide, compared to 85 percent this same time last year.
Julander said lovely weather in October may make outdoor hiking and cycling fun, but “we of the ‘love the gnarly storms’ genre” prefer bad weather, so the water year gets off to a good start, especially coming off a hot and dry summer.
What would make weather watchers happiest would be a cold and wet November to soak the ground, steady and productive snow storms through March or even April, followed by a quick thaw, so the maximum amount of water reaches reservoirs.
McInerney said the coming storm means temperatures today will be 10 to 15 degrees above normal, with strong winds, especially in Utah’s west desert. Gusts could hit 60 mph, he said.
On Friday, temperatures will drop rapidly, with highs 30 degress lower than today and snow over the whole state into the weekend.
Tage Flint, director of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said his reservoirs are only 54 percent full. He said the district is going to start seeding clouds during storms, including Friday’s, to try to squeeze out more moisture. McInerney said this storm doesn’t mean it will be a wetter winter than last year.
“The long-range forecast calls for above-average temperatures, which is what you’d expect with climate change,” he said. “The country has had 16 months of above-average temperatures, and you expect the trend to continue.”
If the climate change model continues, he said, winters will stay warmer, and although the total amount of precipitation as either rain or snow will be about the same, more of it will be rain in lower elevations.
At the same time, the precipitation will be concentrated in a few heavy storms instead of a lot of smaller storms spread over the winter.
Rain instead of snow is a problem for storing water in reservoirs. When it rains, more water soaks into the ground. Snow managers need snowpack that stays solid all winter and then melts quickly, running off into reservoirs.
What to do if these changes in the weather are permanent is a problem, he said.
“When you talk to the water guys, nobody really has a clear view of what’s going to happen, and I think that’s the bottom line — we’re changing and nobody knows what that means.”
The Utah Rivers Council issued a new report, “Crossroads Utah,” last week, available at its website, www.utahrivers.org.
The report looks critically at Utah’s preparations for rising temperatures caused by climate change.
“Regardless of what you ‘believe’ about our climate, it is undeniable that Utah’s temperatures have risen dramatically over the last 30-plus years,” the study says.
“A study by NRDC graded Utah as being one of the seven least-prepared states for the challenges of the 21st century. Rising temperatures impact all sectors of Utah, including health care, agriculture, real estate, water supply and recreation.
“The economic costs of these impacts can be mitigated, but only if we respond appropriately.”
A major impact on warming is a loss of snowpack, the study says, and quotes Brent Giles, chief sustainability officer of the Park City Ski Resort, saying that if climate change occurs as predicted, the sustainable snow level in Park City will rise to 9,500 feet, just 500 feet below the peak of the resort’s highest peak.
“If these effects become reality, the loss of our ski industry is the least of our problems,” it quotes him saying. “Snow is water and water is life.”