In a time of one shocking news event after another, a slowly developing regional problem has worsened to a crisis stage without making many big headlines. That problem is drought.
“You don’t need to be a powder hound to have noticed the state’s snowpack is off to a rough start this season,” said Jon Meyer of the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University this week, pointing out that the mountains of Utah have yet to see a major 2020-21 snowstorm.
“Rough” might be an understatement considering what Meyer went on to say:
“The state’s soil moisture is so depleted right now that even an above-average snowpack with the most optimal spring melt as possible isn’t going to be sufficient to pull us out of the significant drought. … Simply put, we are in a pretty bad place. The degree of soil dryness is wholly unprecedented in the nearly half-century of monitoring soil moisture.”
According to the latest statewide averages from the National Water and Climate Center, soil moisture in Utah started the year at approximately 38% saturation, well below the 53% recorded last Jan. 1 and the state’s annual average for that date of 62%.
Additionally, The NWCC reports snowpack across Utah currently ranges from 30-70% of normal for this time of year. The Bear River Basin — which includes Cache, Rich and Box Elder counties — is at 68% of normal.
Though in some years snowpack figures like these might not seem too alarming, they come at the heels of the state’s driest year in 125 years of record keeping, which is what got soil-moisture levels headed dramatically in the wrong direction.
“Dry regions aren’t new to the state but they usually are accompanied by a few pockets of good news across the state,” Meyer said. “There really aren’t any pockets of good news across Utah right now, with everywhere suffering a profound lack of legitimate winter storms.”
The extended outlook for the rest of January isn’t promising, with the region “locked into” a high-pressure weather pattern likely to produce only small storms, Meyer said. But February and March typically bring the most mountain snowfall, so forecasters are holding out hope for a dramatic change.
Winter cloud seeding is known to add about 15% to Utah’s annual snowpack, but without proper weather conditions for seeding, even that contributing factor has been stymied.
Nathan Daugs, water manager for the Cache Water Conservancy District, said cloud-seeding generators placed strategically in Cache County have seen little use so far this winter. “You have to have a certain type of storm coming from the right direction, with the right updraft and air currents and then the right temperatures to even make it worth turning the generators on,” he said.
Last year, based on analysis of long-term weather data and patterns, the Utah Climate Center predicted the state was on the verge of transitioning from a wet cycle to a dry cycle of winter precipitation. Historically, wet and dry phases tend to see-saw back and forth every four to six years, and Utah had just enjoyed a series of wet years.
“After 2020 and the start to the 2021 water year, I think we are seeing the transition playing out,” climatologist Meyer said.
Thanks to water storage and reservoirs, impacts from last year’s drought were mostly limited to agriculture, leaving many city dwellers oblivious to the problem.
“If we get another spring-summer-fall like we did in 2020 or even a diet version of last year, there will certainly be impacts felt across the state’s entire population,” Meyer said.
In the event urban water supplies are hard hit this year, the new Cache Water Conservancy District probably won’t play much of a role in finding immediate relief since its focus so far has been on long-term water needs.
“We are planning for new water sources 40 to 50 years from now when the population has doubled and we’re really hurting for water at that point,” Daugs said. “… And where every city kind of runs their own water system here, it’s hard to do a big countywide conservation effort currently because everybody’s not tied together.”