Utah is slated for a hot summer with warm conditions already melting half of the state’s snowpack

Flooding remains a concern amid high soil saturation and rapid snowmelt

Spring runoff continues across the Wasatch Back as snowmelt increases at higher elevations in the Park City area. Half of the snowpack has melted since the April peak.
David Jackson/Park Record

Utah is slated for a hot summer and the warm conditions have already caused more than half of the state’s historic snowpack to melt.

The snow water equivalent, or how much water there would be if the snowpack melted, dropped to 13 inches earlier this month. It was 46% of the median peak as of Tuesday. In March, the snowpack surpassed the previous known record of 26 inches and achieved a new record of 30 inches the following month. The snowpack only reaches around 16 inches of water during a typical year.

While the quick melt is providing much-needed relief to Utah’s reservoir system, it also carries the risk of flooding

Statewide reservoir storage, excluding Lake Powell and Flaming Gorge, was around 71% as of Tuesday, according to a report from the Utah Division of Water Resources. Total storage is 41% of capacity when the two reservoirs are added in.

The figure is up from the 57% capacity reported on May 1 as well as the 59% average from last year. Water officials expected this month’s figure to increase as some of the larger reservoirs were drawn down to prepare for a large arrival of snowmelt runoff, according to a water supply outlook report.

“We anticipate that most of Utah’s reservoirs will fill this summer except for Bear Lake and Strawberry Reservoir, and of course the water levels in both Lake Powell and the Great Salt Lake remain extremely low,” the report stated. 

April storms were below average at 86%, but officials have been impressed with the water year to date as overall precipitation has been 147% of normal. Several SNOTEL sites from across the state – particularly those at higher elevations – also reported record-high amounts of snow water equivalent earlier this month. 

The SNOTEL site with the highest peak snow water equivalent this season was Ben Lomond Peak at nearly 83 inches, according to the report. 

And although there was a 25% decrease in the snowpack from the record peak on April 8 to the report earlier this month, the statewide snow water equivalent was still in the top 10% of May observations since 1980. Utah’s snowpack was 250% of normal as of May 1 compared to 64% of normal this time last year.

Although large amounts of snow are expected to remain in the upper mountains until late June or July, melting at lower elevations has led soil moisture across the state to be around 103% of normal. The wet earth will help ensure water makes it to the reservoirs, but a high saturation level of 76% combined with rapid melting is expected to lead to flooding.

A streamflow report also forecasted a high volume of snowmelt runoff with 39 sites expected to produce greater than 200% of average streamflow.

Officials said this is good news for Utah’s basins. 

The snowpack in the Weber-Ogden River basin remained at 286% of the median as of May 1 compared to 70% at this time last year. Precipitation in April was up compared to the rest of the state at 101%. Conditions in the Provo-Jordan-Utah Lake River basin were similar with the snowpack around 285% of normal versus 59% last year. Around 20 inches of snow water equivalent remained in these areas as of mid-May.

Sandbags were placed around the dog pond at Willow Creek Park last week to help contain an overflow of water. State officials expect flooding to continue as snow in higher elevations melts and flows down to soil that is already saturated at lower levels.
David Jackson/Park Record

Water from the Weber-Ogden, Provo-Jordan-Utah Lake and Bear basins is crucial to supporting the Great Salt Lake. It flows from Summit County through the Wasatch Front, helping to feed into the supply along the way.

The wet ski season has played a significant role in reducing drought conditions across the state. Less than 20% of Utah is in a moderate drought, one of the lowest rankings, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Around 60% of the state is categorized as abnormally dry. More than half of Utah was in an extreme drought, the second worst category, this time last year.

However, water officials continue to echo comments about water preservation they made last year as they are unsure when another historic water year will take place.

“Utahns will need to continue to conserve water to help make progress replenishing our storage systems,” the report stated.

State and county officials are still waiting to see how the wet weather will impact the state’s wildfire season. There’s around a 50% chance of higher-than-normal temperatures across Utah this summer, according to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration outlook. Hotter temperatures could lead to more danger this summer, though it’s expected to start later. 

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