What the record snowpack means for dry southern Utah
What does it take to measure this year’s record snowpack across Utah? Pillows — 138 of them, laid out in remote parts of the state’s mountainous landscape just waiting to be covered with snow.
“Picture almost like a waterbed,” said Jordan Clayton, supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey. “It’s essentially like a waterbed that's on the ground.”
Each pillow is filled with 150 gallons of antifreeze, which Clayton specifies as biofriendly, and equipped with a pressure sensor that measures the force the snow pushes down with — and therefore, how much water that pile of snow holds.
And this year, those snow piles have been gargantuan.
At one measurement site that Clayton visited recently, a shed that stores some of his team’s equipment was completely buried. A snow depth sensor that’s normally way above his head mounted to a radio tower was about chest high as he stood atop the snow next to it.
“This year is the record year,” Clayton said. “We blew away the previous records.”
Statewide, the snow water equivalent — a measure of how much moisture is stored in the snow — peaked at 30 inches in early April. That’s nearly double the state’s average based on recent decades, and a couple of inches more than the previous records the state set in 1952 (28.8 inches) and 1983 (26 inches).
While the southern part of the state didn’t quite break the regional record this year, Clayton said, it came close. Southwest Utah’s snow levels peaked in April at 28.6 inches — more than 350% of normal for that time of year. It was a similar story across southern Utah, where each region peaked at more than 200% of its normal amount of snow water.
The wet winter has eased southern Utah’s drought — from nearly covered in severe drought at the start of this year to now being mostly “abnormally dry,” a step before drought. And the snow survey predicts that snowmelt should be able to fill up a vast majority of Utah’s reservoirs, except the biggest ones like Lake Powell.
That’s good news for people like Zach Renstrom, who manages the Washington County Water Conservancy District in southwest Utah.
This time last year, the reservoirs that supply most of the drinking water for St. George — Sand Hollow and Quail Creek — were struggling. It was another dry year during a decadeslong Western drought, and the city stared down the beginning of a hot summer.
“We had almost no runoff last year,” Renstrom said. “I was really, really stressed.”
But now, Renstrom said, the reservoirs are essentially full, and he expects them to stay that way for the next several weeks as snowmelt trickles down and the city diverts water from the Virgin River.
And because this year’s wet, heavy snow has slowly saturated the soil over a period of months, he said, it will help recharge the region's aquifers that store water underground. Higher water levels help the city generate more electricity — and revenue — from hydropower, too.
“It's just a huge relief,” Renstrom said. “We could not have asked for better conditions.”
But he knows that a miraculous year like this only comes around every once in a while. So both the city and residents, he said, should make the most of this opportunity to plan for future years that aren’t so rosy.
He hopes St. George can add one or two more places to store water in the coming years so that it can take advantage of sporadic wet seasons like this one and help the growing city get through the inevitable dry years in between them.
“I wish I had more reservoirs right now,” Renstrom said, “because I'd have them all filled.”
And as St. George continues to grow, he said, the city can’t ease up on its push for water conservation.
Many people in St. George have gotten on board with a conservation mindset over the past few years, Renstrom said, by swapping out lawns for native landscaping that requires less water or reducing the number of times they irrigate their yard. His concern now is that residents will see the good news about the region’s extra snow and let their conservation guards down.
One banner year, he said, doesn’t change the reality of life in the dry southern Utah desert, especially as climate change fuels aridification across the West.
“It's helped us dig out of a hole,” Renstrom said. “But we need to plan for the future. And the best way to plan for the future is to think about water conservation.”