Utah's snowpack is 'no pack' with dearth of storms

Published: Thursday, Jan. 12 2012 8:00 p.m. MST

Snow collects on the hillside in Millcreek Canyon in Salt Lake County Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A roomful of water supply managers, weather forecasters and hydrologists sat a bit grim-faced Thursday in a water supply outlook meeting hosted by the National Weather Service.

The bad news is that nearly all of Utah is in the clutches of a snow drought, with the statewide snow water equivalent hovering at 48 percent of average.

"We're not looking too hot right now," said Beau Uriona, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Snow Survey.

"We are setting a bad tone, but we are not setting it in stone."

Uriona's presentation made clear that in areas along the populated Wasatch Front, for example, snowfall would have to be "much above average from here on out" to reach even average snowpack when runoff is anticipated to start in April.

As an example, the hydrologist pointed to Jan. 1 numbers that show eight SNOTEL (for snowpack telemetry) sites that recorded below-record lows for snowpack and 10 sites that were close to setting low-snowpack records.

"That has probably gone up since then, by that, as in getting worse," he said, adding later that pretty much all of them have set new records for low snowpack.

While the state's long dry spell is cause for concern — especially among snow-dependent industries such as skiing, tourism and outfitters — it has yet to have water supply managers raising a call of alarm.

"Luckily, we had last year," Uriona said, pointing to a relentless series of winter storms that produced whopping snowpacks. Those snow totals were compounded by a wet spring and delayed runoff into July.

That, hydrologists stress, is the good news.

"Our statewide soil moisture is near average despite low precipitation in the fall," Uriona said. "The reservoir storage is high due to the carryover from last year."

As of Tuesday, Jordanelle, for example, was 86 percent full; Flaming Gorge was at 90 percent; Willard Bay at 92 percent; and East Canyon at 88 percent.

December in 2010 was the fifth wettest on record at the Salt Lake City International Airport, while this past December was the driest, breaking the old record set in 1976, said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

"Our weather has been going from one extreme to the other. We had record precipitation and fast forward seven to eight months later and we have record dry," he said.

Utah is caught in part of a larger weather pattern dominating the Intermountain West, where states like Colorado and the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and mountains of Nevada have been hit particularly hard.

While Utah's water watchers on Thursday were bemoaning the state's snowpack in one breath, in the next they were breathing a sigh of relief that the conditions of the Sierra Nevada Mountain region aren't being replicated here.

In the Lake Tahoe area straddling California and Nevada's borders, snowpack averages as of Thursday were at 11 percent, 13 percent or even 7 percent of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Snow Survey.

Tahoe City, ironically, was this year's host location of the agency's western regional "Snow School" that concluded Thursday. The conference brought together scientists from 12 Western states to hone skills in predicting water supply based on snowpack. Weather watchers were dryly referring to it as the "no snow" school.

McInerney said the problem has been a stubborn high pressure system loafing over the Pacific Ocean in which the jet stream splits, sending storms north of the Intermountain region and to the south.

Alaska has seen record snowfall this season — one coastal town has been practically buried with 15 feet — and New Mexico is doing "quite well,' according to McInerney.

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