Drought remains in Summit County, but the soil is showing signs of healing | ParkRecord.com

Drought remains in Summit County, but the soil is showing signs of healing

Recent rains could help ahead of crucial winter

Recent rains last week briefly muddied trails in Round Valley, shown, and the rest of the Park City area last week, but officials say they did not come close to moving the state out of drought.
Courtesy of the Mountain Trails Foundation

Heavy rains hit Utah last week, causing dangerous flooding in some areas including eastern Summit County, but also bringing some much-needed moisture to the state as it grapples with a historic drought.

But how much, exactly, did the rainfall help?

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one of the nine authors of the U.S. Drought Monitor, said it would take sustained precipitation rather than monsoonal bursts to make serious headway.

“Despite a little bit of a boost with topsoil moisture and getting streams flowing a little bit again, there are truly serious underlying drought conditions that aren’t going to be eased very much by this monsoon surge,” he said.

Rich Tinker, a fellow meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another author of the U.S. Drought Monitor, said some parts of Utah saw 6-7 inches of rain from the recent storms. While it was helpful, it wasn’t nearly enough when taken in the broader context of the drought.

Tinker said the storms delivered enough rain in the Summit County area that, when taken together with the low rainfall in the previous four to five months, they brought precipitation to an average level for that time period.

But if the scope is widened to nine months, the amount of local precipitation is still substantially deficient. And if the timeframe is stretched to one to two years — the length of the drought — Tinker said the precipitation levels are “something that would only happen once in every 20-50 years, if that.”

The rains also weren’t particularly helpful against the local fire risk, according to Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer.

“Lessened it for about a day or two and then we’re right back,” Boyer said. “Everything’s dried back out.”

It doesn’t appear to have hurt, however. Boyer indicated that summer rain sometimes encourages plant growth that can then provide fuel for fires when it dries out. He said he wasn’t seeing much vegetation growth after the recent rain.

Jordan Clayton, who supervises the Utah Snow Survey for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, quantified the precipitation shortage since the drought began about two years ago.

He said Utah has a deficit of about 16 inches of precipitation since October 2019. For the water year starting last October, the state has received about 8.3 fewer inches of precipitation than normal.

According to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, as of last Monday, 3/4 of the state’s reservoirs are below 55% full and more than half of the measured streams are at below-normal flow levels.

But while the rain didn’t replenish the reservoirs or fill all the streams, it did bring a measure of relief to one of the most crucial, if less visible, elements of the drought.

“Maybe the most important part is, we also see the soils are a little more prime to deliver water next spring,” Clayton said. “The problem that we ran into last year is that we had historically dry soils in our headwaters, really throughout the state. What that did was we just lost a large percentage of the water from our snowpack in headwater locations, it just went to that deficit.”

According to the minutes of a late June board meeting for the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which oversees much of the water supply in Summit County, General Manager Tage Flint said this drought was the worst he’s seen

“In a typical year we see around 220,000 (acre-feet) of storage from the winter snowpack,” Flint said, according to the minutes. “This year we only received approximately 7,300 (acre-feet.)”

Clayton indicated that with the abnormal lack of precipitation last year, the soils were bone dry. The soil moisture content doesn’t change much once the snow arrives, Clayton said, and when the melt starts in the spring, the runoff first seeps into the soil before heading to streams and then on to reservoirs.

“What we froze in place last winter were historically dry, exceptionally dry, off-the-charts dry conditions in our headwaters,” Clayton said. “There’s no way to recover from that.”

But after the recent rainfall, Clayton reported that soil moisture was looking better across the state. The Snow Survey maintains a network of 135 snow telemetry, or “snotel,” data monitoring sites across Utah.

In the East Canyon basin, for example, the soil briefly reached an average moisture level after the snowmelt this spring, but then dried back out, Clayton said.

After the recent rains, the soil moisture levels were above average and, as of Tuesday morning, the East Canyon basin sensors showed soil moisture levels “right exactly on the average line,” Clayton said.

That is no guarantee the moisture will remain until the fall. Soil moisture can fluctuate quickly, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, especially in the late summer. All of the drought experts agreed that consistent, smaller amounts of precipitation leading up to the crucial winter period would be the most helpful in reversing the drought.

Still, the rainfall offered a glimmer of hope that if soils can remain moist until the snow arrives — and hopefully be replenished between now and then — the runoff from the snowpack could help the state begin to heal.

Clayton indicated that, despite the recent rain, people should continue to try to conserve water.

“We definitely appreciated and needed the moisture, but we’re nowhere close to being done with this drought,” he said. “Now is not the time to go back to how we were using water.”

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