Utah experiences near record-breaking snowpack
Current levels represent typical peak numbers for April
January 27, 2017
As snow continues to hammer Utah's mountains, the snowpack on Wasatch's peaks is nearing the highest levels ever recorded in January since the National Weather Service began tracking the data more than three decades ago.
The high-pressure weather system that has regularly produced dry winters the last five years has been replaced with a low-pressure system that has "opened the door for constant weather," according to Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
"Weather likes to shift and it doesn't like to stay in the same flow for that long. After four-to-five years, we go in different cycles and, hopefully, this wet cycle continues for the rest of the spring," McInerney said.
An unusual stretch of storms has dropped several feet of snow on the area, clogging the streets and nearly producing a historic snowpack. A measuring station near the Thaynes chair lift at Park City Mountain Resort is showing a snowpack at 160 percent of normal. A station at Weber Basin is at 176 percent of normal. A station that measures the snowpack for the Alta and Snowbird Resorts is reporting 165 percent of normal.
"The main reason, we think, is because of the low pressure and the cold pull of air off the Pacific," McInerney said. "We have had four of these atmospheric weather events, but the high pressure will come back over us for about a week. Since the pattern has been so active, this shouldn't be the case for the long term."
McInerney said a healthy snowpack during the winter means the spring runoff will produce much-needed water "if we can keep the snow as long as possible."
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"As far as hydrology, we are looking really good as of today," McInerney said. "The next question is, if it is a little too much, are we going to have any issues of flooding?"
Snowpack levels are showing averages that are typically recorded in April, according to Randy Julander, a snow supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said even if the snow stops, it could still be an average snowpack year.
"We basically have an outstanding snowpack and it is high enough right now that we are very close to where we would normally be on April 1," Julander said. "That makes us both excited and concerned."
The Weber-Ogden watershed is currently running at 175 percent of average, Julander said.
"We will easily fill all of the reservoirs on the Weber River System and we will put a lot of recharge into groundwater and probably have some surplus that runs off into the Great Salt Lake," Julander said. "From a water perspective, it looks really outstanding. But it also raises some concerns."
Julander said the current situation is reminiscent of 2011. He added, "That means there is some potential for really high flows." In 2011, Julander said the National Weather Service issued its final flood forecast during the last week of July.
"We like where we are at. We are excited. We are happy and we have big smiles because the last few years have been pretty dry," Julander said. "But there is that potential and counties, cities and towns need to be aware of this increasing snowpack and what it has the potential to do at this point.
"It is still way too early to say anything definitive about flood potential and high stream flows and that kind of thing," he said. "But we need to be prepared for that potential this spring."
Chris Crowley, Summit County's emergency manager, said county staff has started having conversations with the Public Works Department about the county's debris management plan, which addresses flooding. The county has also scheduled an open house meeting on Feb. 7 to reveal the new flood plain maps for the county.
"Considering the current level of snow and water content, we definitely want to make sure people are aware and people are prepared to deal with any flooding we may see this spring," Crowley said.
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