Snowpack: Park City’s cool, wet spring hardly compensates for warm, dry winter
Editor’s note: This article is one of four exploring the water situation in the Park City area following a winter with sparse snowfall. The others examine the capability of the city waterworks system to withstand a dry year, the impact of lower-than-average runoff on the fish population and the factors involved in City Hall drought declarations.
Skiers wanted the snow during the 2017-2018 winter for powder days.
Others had another reason for wanting the snow.
The snow that accumulates during the winter feeds water into the creeks, streams and rivers of the Park City area in the summer. It is the water that eventually is put into the various culinary and irrigation systems in the area as well as the water that sportsmen and recreation lovers rely on for some of their summer fun.
A cool, wet spring could not compensate for the relatively warm, dry conditions through much of the winter, leaving a meager snowpack as the summer fast approaches. The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which closely tracks the numbers, on April 30 tallied 10.6 inches of water in the snowpack at a measuring station in Thaynes Canyon. The figure was 47 percent of the 30-year median of 22.4 inches of water for that date. It had dropped by 23 percentage points in 12 days. The snowpack was losing approximately eight-tenths of an inch of water daily in early May.
The snow is measured in a forested area on a north-facing slope at an elevation of 9,230 feet, a location selected for a measuring station based on its ability to hold snow longer. It is the only Natural Resources Conservation Service measuring station in the immediate Park City area. Another one, at Parley’s Summit, was even worse on April 30, at just 9 percent of the 30-year median.
The Park City-area is toward the top of the Weber Basin watershed, draining into East Canyon Creek and then into the Weber River as it flows toward the Great Salt Lake. The snowpack in Park City is, then, critical to water flow into the rivers as well as reservoirs on the route to the Great Salt Lake. The spring runoff volume in the Park City area is projected to fall to 40 percent of normal, according to the National Weather Service.
It is lucky the poor winter snows followed one year after a spectacular winter for snow. The National Weather Service hydrologist who closely follows snowpack and water numbers in the region, Brian McInerney, said the scenario as summer approaches is not as dire as some may have expected. He said the 2016-2017 winter, which delivered storm after storm, continues to influence the water situation. Even with an expected runoff well below average, the reservoirs remain nearly full with water from the melted snow of the 2016-2017 winter, he said. They are at approximately 90 percent of capacity, McInerney said.
“That’s a direct result of the carryover from last year,” he said.
The reservoirs were designed to ensure water from the melting snow of a heavy winter can be stored in case the next winter sees below average precipitation.
“If you have a bad winter, you want it right after a good winter,” McInerney said. “It eases the pain.”
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Thanks to COVID-19 cutting into visitation numbers, Park City’s seasonal workforce is sufficient. In any other winter, “the hiring situation would be dire.”