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Utah snowpack starts off strong, but there’s a long way to go to improve drought

Over the last two weeks, the Snowbasin Ski Resort has gotten 38 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service.
Christian Nafzger/Getty Images
Over the last two weeks, the National Weather service reports Snowbasin Ski Resort has received 38 inches of snow.

Utah saw a snowy start to December, which is an encouraging sign for a state experiencing ongoing drought. But experts say it’s still early, and even if Utah has an above-average winter, it’ll take several strong years to make up for a multi-year water deficit.

National Weather Service meteorologist Alex DeSmet said snowfall levels near the Salt Lake City International Airport indicate this is the snowiest first half of December on record.

“We’ve had 20.8 inches of snowfall so far this month. And the second place year was 1892 with 17.5 inches,” DeSmet said.

Jordan Clayton is the supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey Program, which calculates the “snow water equivalent.” That’s a measurement of how much liquid is stored in the state’s snowpack. Clayton said all the snow –– and the amount of water in that snow –– is encouraging. As of Dec. 16, statewide levels are at about 149% of the median and are in the 76th percentile compared to previous years.

“We’re definitely above where we were last year at this time. And of course, the year before that,” Clayton said.

Going back to data from about 1981, Clayton said Utah has had multiple years where the snowpack was bigger than it is right now, but he still finds the current level impressive.

Clayton said Utah is ahead of schedule in building its snowpack, which typically peaks at the beginning of April.

“In Utah, we get about 95% of our water from snow. And so unless you’re in the southwest corner of the state, you’re really reliant on that snowpack for all of your water needs,” he said.

It’s hard to define exactly how much precipitation Utah would need to dig its way out of the drought, but Clayton said the state has built up a precipitation deficit over the last three water years.

“It’s not a perfect number, but we get a rough idea that we would need about 13 inches above and beyond what we normally receive in a given water year to get us back on track to be sort of ‘out of the drought,’” Clayton said.

It’s possible Utah could have a significantly above-average snowpack this year and make a lot of progress, but Clayton said it will most likely take multiple winters.

DeSmet said last winter also started off strong, but the weather slowed down and Utah ended up with below normal snow levels.

The next couple of weeks are expected to be drier than the first half of December. In January, DeSmet said there are slight odds that we will see below average precipitation in the southern part of the state and above average in the north, which reflects the typical La Niña weather pattern. This is the third La Niña winter in a row.

During Gov. Spencer Cox’s monthly news conference Dec. 15, he said he was excited about the recent snow, but echoed the fact that there is still a long way to go to pull Utah out of drought.

“The most critical months are actually February, March and April when that snowpack really climbs,” Cox said. “So to my fellow Utahns, of course I urge you to continue to conserve water and to continue to pray for snow and rain. We need all the help we can get.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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