As a historic drought grips the area, scientists say it would take snowstorms through May to approach normal conditions
Water at Thaynes Canyon weather station lowest ever, soil moisture driest on record
Parkites probably don’t need data to know that the area is in a drought — they see closed ski runs, bare hills in Round Valley or the gouges in the bases of their skis from rocks that should be submerged this time of year.
But the numbers reveal just how bad the problem is.
A hot, dry drought started last April and has reached historic levels, said Glen Merrill, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City who also manages the hydrology program.
“90% of the state is in extreme drought and 68% of the state is in exceptional drought, which is the highest drought level,” Merrill said. “… 95% of the time we have more snowpack than we do this year.”
Summit County, especially the Park City area, is in “exceptional” drought, he added.
Those adjectives might not properly convey the severity of the situation, said Jordan Clayton, who supervises the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Utah Snow Survey.
“It’s really very serious,” Clayton said. “We get 95% of our water or more from snowpack in the state of Utah.”
The weather station in Thaynes Canyon shows the lowest ever recorded amount of snow water equivalent, a measurement that shows how much water snow contains. Merrill said it’s a useful measure to show how the snowpack will affect the area’s water supply when it melts.
The Thaynes station shows water levels at about half the historical average, which dates back 40 years, Merrill said.
Merrill said one factor that makes this drought so pernicious is that it has been accompanied by hot temperatures. That’s drawn water out of soils, leading to what the scientists said were record low levels of soil moisture.
When the snow melts in the spring, much of that water will be soaked into soils and won’t end up in the area’s streams, rivers and reservoirs, they indicated.
“Because soils are so dry, we’d need a well-above-average snowpack to achieve normal runoff,” Clayton said.
Representatives from the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District visited the Summit County Council earlier this month, assuring the elected officials that the area’s drinking water supply was secure for at least the next few years.
The conservancy district covers 2,800 square miles, 700,000 residents and five counties, including Summit County.
Tage Flint, the general manager of the district, told the council that the system has enough water to weather a sustained drought. He said the Echo and Rockport reservoirs aren’t in danger of running out of water and store enough of it for multiple years of demand.
“The fact that we had a very hot and very high water demand summer last year, and the fact that we’re having a very dry winter now, says that we should be worried about next year’s water supply,” Flint said. “And we are, but each one of those reservoirs already have next year’s water supply in them.”
Clayton said that reservoirs around the state are down 15% compared to this time last year.
“Right now I would say 3/4 of the basins in Utah are alarmingly low,” Clayton said, referencing larger watersheds like Weber Basin and not specific reservoirs.
Merrill said that the current drought is distinct from a previous one that ended in 2019 after the spring of that year was the second wettest on record.
That restored healthy soil moisture levels and filled the area’s reservoirs, Merrill said.
But starting in the spring of 2020, the situation changed.
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, 2020 was the driest year ever in Utah, with data dating back to 1895.
There might be some hope on the horizon, Merrill indicated. He said he expects the weather patterns will change starting this weekend.
“The conveyor belt of storms has been heading to our north this winter into the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, on up to Alaska,” Merrill said. Signs indicate that pattern is shifting, he added, saying that a high-pressure ridge on the Pacific Coast was expected to head farther out to sea, allowing low-pressure systems to dive in behind it, bringing moisture.
He said the near-term storm systems could deliver 1 to 2 inches of water to the mountains. But he said it would have to snow and keep snowing for the season to approach normalcy.
“What’s to come over the next 10 days is a good thing,” Merrill said of the impending storms. “… What we need is for that to continue all the way, pretty much through May. And we need to have an efficient snowmelt runoff so that we can even come close to putting a significant dent in where we are now.”
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Utah’s legislative general session is set to end on Friday, and if history is any indicator, there will be a flurry of floor amendments and last-minute changes for county officials to monitor.