Above average snowpack helps ease drought conditions

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Y Mountain is covered in snow on Jan. 5. Utah’s snowpack is about 141% of the normal statewide average as of Jan. 6, bringing more snowfall and improvement to drought conditions. Approximately 34% of the state remains in extreme drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor— down from 70.7% last week. (Decker Westenburg)

Utah’s snowpack is about 141% of the normal statewide average as of Jan. 6, bringing more snowfall and improvement to drought conditions.

Approximately 34% of the state remains in extreme drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor— down from 70.7% last week.

The statewide snow water equivalent on Jan. 4 was 7.6 inches — up from 2.8 inches back on Dec. 16, according to data from the Utah Division of Water Resources.

The state was actually off the charts on Dec. 1 and hadn’t seen as small of a snowpack in the last 30 years according to Laura Haskell, drought coordinator for the Utah Division of Water Resources.

As of Jan. 6, the statewide snow water equivalent was 8.6 inches, which is 54% of median peak according to data from the National Resources Conservation Service.

“So, we’ve just gotten out of an exceptional three-week period of consistent heavy snow statewide,” said Glen Merrill, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

It’s too early to say whether Utah’s overall extreme drought will improve, however. “You have to look at the snowpack as a savings account,” Merrill said. Essentially, Utah is saving and storing water in the snowpack and is only about halfway through the accumulation season.

A normal peak for snowpack is 15.8 inches during the first and second week of April, and Utah was only about 48% of the way there as of Jan. 4. “But we’re in good shape right now. You know, we want to stay at this bar or above moving forward,” Merrill said.

While the state has gotten a lot more snow to be above average, there’s still room for improvement. “We just need to keep it up so that we can get the other 52% that we need to get to typical, or even better than typical,” Haskell said.

These maps from the U.S. Drought Monitor show drought conditions in Utah on Dec. 28, 2021 and Jan. 4, 2022. At the end of December, 70.7% of the state was in extreme drought, and that number is down to 34% as of Jan. 4. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Snowpack variance

According to the National Weather Service, snowpack is the total snow and ice on the ground, including both new snow, previous snow and ice which has not melted.

One measurement hydrologists and water managers use to gauge the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack is snow water equivalent. It’s the amount of water released from the snowpack when it melts, according to the National Resources Conservation Service.

Snowpack data is collected by the National Resources Conservation Service through a plethora of Snowpack Telemetry stations at different elevations across the state, Merrill said. These sites are in different watersheds and basins. Data collected from all of the sites creates an average for the state.

This graph shows the percent difference of the median snowpack level for Jan. 5 each year from 2002 to 2022 in the Provo-Utah Lake-Jordan basin. The snowpack levels vary each year, which is a reflection of weather variability and patterns on not just a local, but a global scale. (Data from National Resources Conservation Service/Graphic by Emma Gadeski)

The above average snowpack and variance in snow levels each year is a reflection of weather variability and patterns on not just a local, but a global scale.

“It’s all the factor of how weather patterns set up,” Merrill said. Utah doesn’t get consistent snowfall; typically, the state has periods of heavy snow and then a prolonged or couple-week break before getting more storm activity.

How drought affects runoff

The Jordanelle Reservoir is pictured here in July 2021 during Utah’s ongoing historic drought.Most of the state’s water comes from the Deer Creek and Jordanelle reservoirs. When the soil is dry, the snow goes straight into it rather than coming down the mountain and ending up in these reservoirs, according to BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Sam St. Clair. (Addie Blacker)

In 2021, most of the year was extremely dry— meaning the soil was as well. When the soil is dry, the snow goes straight into it instead of coming down the mountain and ending up in reservoirs, BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Sam St. Clair said.

But this year there was good news — the snow started falling when the ground was a lot wetter. So when the current snow starts to melt, Haskell said more of it is going to make it into streams and reservoirs.

“I’m not sure that we’ll make it all up in a single big year, but I think it will improve the situation,” St. Clair said.

Utah gets 95% of its water supply from its snowpack and runoff, Merrill emphasized. “So we really need these storms here in this state and we need them to continue all the way through April into this spring.”

Ways to improve

As the state remains in historic drought, Utahns are advised to take precautions. The governor’s water conservation team has a “Slow the Flow” campaign which gives simple tips to conserve water such as watering lawns less, not watering when it’s windy, quickly fixing leaks, and avoiding watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Haskell suggests using full loads when doing laundry and dishes, since these are big ways people use water indoors. She said winter is a good time to take care of indoor projects like fixing leaks.

Another way to help improve drought conditions is to become literate on the topic. Most of a person’s water footprint comes from their diet and the way they water their yards, so they will have to become more conservation-minded, St. Clair said.

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