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Outlook dismal for Utah water supply with snowpack at just 62% of normal

Coming storms won’t be able to lift state out of drought conditions

A mix of a shallow snowpack and dry hillsides can be seen in Emigration Canyon on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. With a shallow snowpack, water runoff is expected to be less than normal this year.
A mix of a shallow snowpack and dry hillsides can be seen in Emigration Canyon on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. With a shallow snowpack, water runoff is expected to be less than normal this year.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah water supply briefing Tuesday delivered grim news amid the state’s growing drought conditions, and it is unlikely any coming storms will lift snowpack to even average for this water year.

“We are in record dry conditions this year,” said Jordan Clayton with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Utah Snow Survey.

Clayton told water managers in a virtual meeting that there’s little chance — 10% — of boosting snowpack in any significant way, given that precipitation for the water year that began Oct. 1 is sitting at 62% of average across the state.

“Even if storms delivered and we hit that jackpot and get that excellent snowpack that only has a 10% chance of occurring, we’d still only be at 75 to 80% for our snow water equivalent,” Clayton said.

Extremely dry soils, he emphasized, will suck up what is already forecasted to be an abysmally low runoff that could sink to just 20% of average in some locations across the state. Most projections for runoff hover in the 30% to 60% range of normal, he added.

Orange conditions on a map the survey puts together tracking snowpack across the state’s basins denote dangerously low measurements, with Clayton advising that water managers across Utah need to take heed and plan for dry conditions.

“There will be alarmingly low water supply conditions for this summer,” he said.

Glen Merrill, acting hydrology program manager with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said 70% of the state is in exceptional drought — the worst category there is — while 90% of the state sits in extreme drought.

While January experienced mostly near normal temperatures, it failed to deliver much-needed precipitation, with averages ranging between 55% to 65% of what Utah typically would receive.

Basinwide, Lake Powell will continue to be challenged, according to the briefing. It is expected to get just 46% of an average inflow of water during spring runoff.

Any runoff is not likely to do much to help the ailing Great Salt Lake, which Gary Henrie said is approaching its record low elevation last logged in 1963.

Henrie, with the Provo-area office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said if there is any sliver of good news to be had, it is that reservoir storage is about 70% overall across Utah.

“Generally we are OK. We are not great, but fortunately we are not horrible,” he said. “We could use some water.”