January and February storms help boost Utah’s snowpack
There have been plenty of powder days this winter as snowstorms have continuously pummeled Utah’s mountains, a welcome relief following a lean 2017-2018.
An onslaught of storms has dropped several feet of snow on the Wasatch Mountains since January, helping the snowpack reach near-normal levels.
Precipitation for the month of February is measuring at 300 percent of average across most of the state, including Summit County, said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. The snowpack is measuring between 115 percent and 170 percent of average across the state.
A station that measures snowpack near the Thaynes Lift at Park City Mountain Resort showed levels were at 124 percent of normal on Feb. 14. A station for Parley’s Summit reported levels at 123 percent of normal that day and another station at Snowbird Resort reported snowpack at 141 percent of normal.
“We are doing really quite well and we still have a lot of winter left through March and April,” McInerney said. “What you want is a cold, wet spring to keep the snow as long as possible.”
More than 97 percent of the state’s water supply comes from the snowpack. Poor snowpack years can mean water restrictions and a depletion of the state’s reservoirs, similar to what happened last year when Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency over the summer due to drought. The reservoirs, which were built to sustain the water supply in dry years, are still considerably low for this time of year.
However, McInerney said the projections are showing there is a high likelihood that the water runoff will help fill a majority of the state’s reservoirs, excluding Lake Powell and Bear Lake. He said the Jordanelle Reservoir may also not end up fully replenished.
A warming climate has been dominated by high-pressure weather systems, which have regularly produced dry winters with less frequent storms and precipitation, McInerney said. He highlighted the 2017-2018 winter, adding, “It was the driest year on record.”
But, the weather pattern has remained active this winter due to low-pressure systems, allowing snow to stack up in the mountains, McInerney said. The forecasts indicate it will stay that way for at least the next two weeks.
“If we can do that and keep normal to above-average snowfall from here through the end of February, then we kind of have to shift our thinking from filling reservoirs to high peak flows in the springtime,” he said.
McInerney said the current situation is somewhat reminiscent of 1983. He described it as an “average year that just kept going.” The water runoff ended up melting all at once and flooded areas across the state. He said that is an extreme example, but something that needs to be considered in years with adequate snowfall.
Chris Crowley, Summit County’s emergency manager, said county officials are always “planning and looking ahead” for indications that flooding could be a threat. He said they follow guidance from forecasters at the National Weather Service.
Troy Brosten, a hydrologist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said temperatures need to continue to stay low so the snowpack doesn’t start to melt too early or all at once. If the weather pattern continues to produce storms every seven to 10 days through April, “that would be fantastic,” he said.
“Things could still fall apart,” he added. “But, hopefully, once a pattern sets up like it has, it will keep going as long as a high-pressure system doesn’t come in and camp over the state. Those are Utah’s nemesis. Once that sets in, it pushes all the storms north and south of us. But, this year has been good. It’s been real consistent across the entire state.”
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