SALT LAKE CITY — Despite all the snow still piled up in frozen mounds next to driveways and along city streets, January was not kind to Utah's snowpack, according to a monthly report analyzing Utah's water supply outlook.
"People around here are sick of shoveling snow," said Randy Julander, Utah Snow Survey supervisor with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. "But the truth of the matter is, we in the mountains did not get nearly the amount of snow as we did down here — not even average."
January saw significant decreases in mountain snowpack, with the late storm at the end of the month putting the brakes on what Julander described as a "free fall" in basin-wide averages that calculate the percent of normal snowpack.
The Utah Water Supply Outlook Report released Tuesday details snowpack, water supply and soil moisture conditions throughout the state, describing conditions that point to a slightly below average water supply overall.
"We're not in a panic situation yet," he said. "Eighty percent snowpack is much better than 50 percent. … It's like the old saying — if you have one foot in the fire and one foot in a bucket of ice, on average you feel pretty good."
That's not to say, however, that Julander and other water watchers wouldn't like to see the mountains get a huge helping of snow in the next couple of months.
Storms like those would counter the shortages that hit the mountains last month, such as the Bear River basin up north, which saw snowpack diminish by 21 percent. The Provo River basin's drop was even more significant at 23 percent, and several other regions such as Price/San Rafael and the Weber River basin saw double-digit decreases as well.
"Extreme cold and frequent storms do not normally match up well and this month (January) was no exception," Julander's monthly report said. "As the saying goes, there was nothing protecting us from the brutally cold arctic air but a barbed wire fence, and it had two wires broken."
Mountain snow was so reluctant to make an appearance at some locations, Julander said his monitors at SNOTEL snow measuring sites called him to relay that equipment must be broken in the upper Bear River basin.
"But we were sitting here getting pounded by snow," Julander said, describing snow events that were strangely hit and miss — clobbering one region and leaving another alone. "The bottom line is that January was not what we had hoped for."
This water year's lackluster performance already has some water managers anxious.
"There is cause for concern in terms of our long-term water supply," said Jeff Budge, operations and engineering manager for the Provo River Water Users Association. The association is a supplier of drinking water for systems that serve Salt Lake Valley residents and also provides agricultural water for multiple communities in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
"Typically, when we have this kind of snowpack, there is not a lot of water out there," Budge said.
Many residents, he said, wrongly believe that snow on the Wasatch Front equates to ample water supplies in the summer.
"Just because we get hammered on the Wasatch Front, it does not mean water is getting to where we can catch it, store it and use the water in the summer," he said. "As far as water supply, we can only take what we can treat."
Tage Flint, manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, echoed Budge's concerns.
"We are coming off a very dry year," he said. "We are very concerned, especially looking at a less than normal runoff."
Budge said shareholders in the association took shortages in their annual allotments of water last year because of the dry winter of 2011.
"This year is not looking much, if any, better than last year," he said.
Both Julander and Budge yearn for more snowstorms — the big events that drop a lot of snow in the mountains.
"Our hope is that as the water year progresses, we get some of those storms that will come in the latter part of the year and hit the backside of the mountains rather than the front," Budge said.
Julander's report does note, however, that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting warmer than normal temperatures, plus lower than normal precipitation for February through April.
"We see an overall dry trend in the state," Julander said. "We certainly don't want it to get any drier."
Budge is ready to start discussing conservation strategies given the unknowns in the months to come.
"In another year or two, people will be really scrambling if we don't conserve on the front end," he said. "In drought cycles, we get to the point where everybody starts squirming. If we can be relatively conservative with our water consumption, we can be ready for a third year if it happens."
Julander said the best scenario to keep everyone happy would be one that takes care of the water supply and eases the blues of valley snow.
"As long as we are wishing: tons of more snow in the mountains and gentle rain down here in the valley," he said.
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