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Utah’s snowpack is better than last year, officials say consistency is key to ending drought

By Toria Barnhart - Park Record | Jan 18, 2022

David Jackson, Park Record

The Jordanelle Reservoir, like other reservoirs in the state, has struggled during a record drought. Utah has received more snowfall than average this winter, but officials say more precipitation is needed before the snowpack peaks, typically in April, to refill reservoirs and pull the state out of the drought.

A wet October, a dry November and a stormy December have put the snowpack through a bumpy year, and officials with the Utah Department of Natural Resources believe consistency is key to helping pull the state out of drought.

The majority of Utah’s water supply, around 95%, comes from the snowpack, and last water year, which ran from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, the snowpack peaked at around 81% of average, according to Laura Haskell, a drought expert with the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Below-average precipitation, combined with a hot, dry summer caused the melting snowpack to saturate the soil rather than run off into bodies of water and led to an exceptional drought throughout the state.

“That really hurt us this last year,” Haskell said.

Things began to improve throughout the fall, although precipitation levels were still barely above average, and soil saturation began to improve. Haskell said there was more water than normal in October, around 197% of the average, but it bottomed out to 38% of normal in November.

Storms throughout December helped boost the snowpack, with statewide precipitation at 206% of normal, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service Utah Snow Survey.

The weather helped alleviate November’s shortcomings, and the state is in a better position compared to last year. The current snowpack is about 121% of the median, or 56% of what officials want to see for the whole year.

Across the state, reservoirs are seeing lower-than-average capacity, with 35 of the largest 45 below 55%, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources.

The statewide water equivalent, which is the amount of water there would be if the snowpack melted, is 9 inches, or 131% of the median for this time of year.

“If we keep having storms, we’ll be in a good situation. We’re kind of in an OK place but we need consistency,” Haskell said. “But if the faucet turns off (the future is uncertain.)”

There are around 70 days left until the snowpack typically peaks, usually around the first week in April, and above-average snowstorms are still needed to help end the drought.

Once the winter ends, officials are hopeful for above-average rainfall through the rest of the water year, but Haskell said after last year, they’ll gladly take average.

In the meantime, December’s snowfall was enough for all of Utah to be downgraded from being classified as in an “exceptional” drought, the Division of Natural Resources said. However around 32% of the state is still in an “extreme” drought with Summit County in a “severe” drought.

Haskell advised residents to follow advice from their water provider because each water system is localized and has been affected by the drought differently.

While things are looking better than last year, officials encourage caution moving forward.

Haskell noted the impact made last summer when people heeded the advice of experts and reduced their water consumption. Their willingness to comply prevented strict restrictions from being imposed in much of the state.

She pointed to a number of water-saving initiatives like limiting outdoor watering, only doing laundry when there’s a full load and fixing leaky sinks or outdated toilets as ways the community can help.

“People can have such an effect on how things go, little changes make a huge difference,” Haskell said.

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