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Above average snow totals still not enough to pull Utah out of drought

NRCS hydrologists David Eriksson and Joel Burley gathering a snow sample near Spirt Lake in the northeastern Uintas.
Natural Resources Conservation Service
NRCS hydrologists David Eriksson and Joel Burley gathering a snow sample near Spirt Lake in the northeastern Uintas.

Precipitation in Utah’s mountains started strong in November and moved into December with a bang. But all this snow for watersheds and the state’s struggling reservoirs is still not enough to pull Utah out of a drought.

About 95% of Utah’s water for agriculture, municipal uses and drinking water comes from snow. The Natural Resources Conservation Service reports how much water is actually in Utah’s snowpack.

According to NRCS’s most recent report, all but four of Utah’s 16 major watersheds had above normal mountain precipitation last month.

Park City is right on the divide between the Provo watershed and the Weber watershed. A watershed is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams and rivers, and eventually outflow points like reservoirs.

According to Jordan Clayton, a snow survey data collection officer with NRCS, the Weber watershed is about 142% of normal and Provo is 166% of normal. He said this is good news.

“The current snow water equivalent in the Weber is about 35% of the annual peak,” Clayton said. “So what that means is we're about a third of the way to what we would typically receive in a normal snowpack year. And that's great news because we've got about three and a half months left in our typical snowpack season.”

The question is whether the storms will keep coming. The NRCS doesn’t have a crystal ball but it does have SNOTEL.

SNOTEL is an automated system of snowpack and related climate sensors that are located only in the mountains. There are 137 SNOTEL sites in Utah. Clayton said SNOTEL is what sets NRCS apart from other weather networks.

“Each one of these sites has what's called a 'snow pillow,'” Clayton said “They're essentially like large water beds that are filled with a biodegradable antifreeze solution and they feel the weight of the snowpack and we convert that weight to a liquid water equivalent.”

NRCS uses the data to make water supply forecasts which predict how full Utah’s streams will be April through July, for example, based on how much snowpack there is at the beginning of April.

Utah has been in a drought eight of the last 10 years. In April of this year, Utah Governor Spencer Cox, declared a state of emergency due to the drought.

While Utah saw more snow in November than in the last two years, Clayton said there is still a long way to go before Utah pulls out of this drought.

“I can tell you for the state that that number is around 13 inches. Meaning that we would, on top of what we normally get in a year, we would need to get about 13 inches of extra precipitation to bring us out of the drought as a state,” Clayton said.

That likely means Utah would need two or more above normal winters in order to really catch up. Clayton said it’s possible in one winter but it would have to be one monster of a season.