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Where's winter? Utah in 'unprecedented territory' that is 'killing us,' experts say

SALT LAKE CITY — As winter persists in its vanishing act throughout Utah, the weather experts pore over the maps, charts, measurements and forecasts and can only become more depressed.

The weather outside is delightful, but the effects are frightful.

Saturday marks the 40th consecutive day that temperatures at the Salt Lake City International Airport have been above average.

"It is not just down here in the valley, but mountain temperatures have been abnormally high as well," said Randy Julander, supervisor of the Utah Snow Survey with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "West-wide, it has just been a bloodbath when it comes to temperatures."

The mood was grim this week during a meeting of water supply managers at the Salt Lake City headquarters of the National Weather Service.

"We are in unprecedented territory," said Randy Graham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "We are going to make a real run at the warmest winter on record."

Consider this:

Snow conditions in the mountains are the same as they were on April 1, 2014. Snow density measurements indicate the higher elevation snowpack is on the cusp of melting.

Lower elevation snowpacks are already gone.

Only 10 of 150 U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge stations remain in "ice."

Overall, conditions are six weeks ahead of schedule.

"We are down anywhere from 10 to 40 percent relative to January conditions, and every day that we go on without a storm, we are basically dropping 1 percent a day as we go on through this whole thing," Julander mourned.

Lest skeptics think a couple of good storms will solve the problem, the experts warn it is improbable that this winter will look anything close to normal for snowpack.

Soil temperatures at a depth of 20 inches have jumped 2 degrees over the last two weeks, Julander said.

"Even if we get a good snow, with that stored heat, it will melt the snow. The ground can store an enormous amount of heat over a short period of time, and we should be getting colder temperatures in the ground. We've had three weeks of solid good temperatures," he said. "It is bad and getting worse."

In essence, that means any new snow will melt earlier and not be part of a typical healthy spring runoff.

Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said the abnormally high temperatures are wreaking havoc on low-elevation watershed conditions.

"This is killing us. If there's ever been a hydrologic scenario you don't want to see after three dry years, you are seeing it now," he said, noting that on average, temperatures have been nine degrees higher than normal since Dec. 1 in Salt Lake City.

"This is killing us."

The forecast calls for a brush-by storm early next week, but it is not expected to amount to much.

McInerney said that has been part of the problem this winter as well, with most storms only delivering snow above the 7,500-foot level, and the rest of the moisture falling as rain.

What's happening in Utah is part of a larger pattern playing out in the West, where record high temperatures have been logged in seven states.

California remains in exceptional drought, and has a snowpack that is just 27 percent of average. San Francisco has not clocked a drop of rain since January.

Utah is better off, but conditions are still dismal.

"Southwest Utah is toast. It will easily go into record-low conditions if we don't get some serious storms over the next month or so," Julander said.

To demonstrate the severity and accelerated nature of conditions, Julander told water managers that the Weber-Ogden basin, for example, has six weeks to make up 60 percent of its snowpack.

Salt Lake and Provo areas have six weeks to get half of its snowpack back, as does the Duchesne River drainage.

Lee Traynham, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said all the dams and reservoirs are steadily filling.

Deer Creek rose 5 percent from January to February, and stream flows into the water bodies are well above average, she said.

The ice has come off early at several locations, leading to cancellations or alterations of ice-fishing events at Flaming Gorge, East Canyon State Park and Starvation.

Reservoir storage is about what it was last year at this time, thanks to an abnormally wet fall.

But as spring weather continues to dominate, Julander said the effect is to draw out the runoff and make it less efficient.

Typically, a six-week melt delivers an inch of water a day, but in this scenario only half that much will make it to the streams because the drainage basins will take what they need first.

"We will bleed out whatever snowpack we have," Julander said.

Both McInerney and Julander aren't betting on conditions to change any time soon, especially given that forecasts call for above-average temperatures to persist over the next three months.

In January, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and NASA released a study that found that globally, 2014 was the hottest year since record keeping began in the late 19th century.

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