Historic Utah snowfall a step toward drought control, government officials say

A BYU student traverses the snowy campus. The 2023 winter season is the best snow season in Utah in 20 years. (Riley Waldman)

Utah government officials from the Department of Natural Resources and House of Representatives say recent historic snowfall and precipitation levels are not reasons to press the brakes on statewide and local conservation efforts.

This month, the Natural Resource Conservation Service of Utah reported Utah’s snow water equivalent as 195% of normal. This means Utah snowfall not only exceeds the average seasonal snowfall, but it also contains double the amount of moisture than average. Utah will reach its typical peak annual snowfall in about 70 days, which means Utah could end this season at 154% of the average snowfall — a significant step towards drought control in Utah.

“About 95% of Utah’s water comes from snowpack,” Laura Haskell, the drought coordinator at the Department of Natural Resources in Salt Lake City, said.

Haskell also explained that rainfall at lower elevations is important to refill some reservoirs, but snowpack sustains Utah’s water economy throughout the dry seasons and is a key indicator in drought measurement.

The black line indicates the current level of snowfall in this water year. If Utah does not see more snow storms for the rest of the season, the snowfall would still end at above-average levels. (USDA)

“We have decreased the amount of the two worst categories, extreme and exceptional drought, by 35%,” Haskell said.

While the signs of continued precipitation are encouraging, Haskell also said the drought is not over.

“This is a long-term drought situation, and it’s probably going to take a long time to get out of it,” she said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows drought conditions across the state of Utah. Moving out of the Exceptional Drought category is encouraging, but is not the end of the drought. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Utah has spent 8 out of the past 10 years in drought and whether this is the “new normal” or not, DNR officials cannot say.

“I think we should be prepared for this to be the normal just in case, and moving our whole mindset to be in drought resilience, rather than having these specific, short-term actions,” Haskell said.

State legislator and schoolteacher Douglas Welton, who recently sponsored a bill concerning golf course water usage, is also conscious of the severity of the drought.

“For me, H.B. 188 is a direct response to the ongoing drought and people being concerned about golf courses,” Welton said.

For those at DNR and some state legislators, the recent precipitation is encouraging but is not a signal to loosen attitudes toward water usage in Utah.

“This is going to be an ongoing discussion. We also expect our population to double in the next 40 years, and where I live will probably double faster than that. So water is always going to be a concern,” Welton said.

While Welton and his colleagues work toward more efficient water usage statewide, both he and DNR officials emphasized the importance of local conservation efforts.

“Local communities can make that decision best for themselves. I don’t think there’s a one size fits all for every part of the state,” Welton said.

Michael Sanchez, the public information officer at DNR, cited Utah residents contributed to over nine billion gallons of water saved in the past year.

“We’re all part of the solution, we’re all part of the problem,” Sanchez said.

Haskell says there are still ways to contribute to conservation through the Slow the Flow campaign for those who are not business owners or do not have grass lawns.

Another NCRS-Utah report on snowfall is scheduled for early February.

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