For most in northern Utah, flooding from an outsized snowpack that suddenly comes off the mountains is turning into a distant memory, especially in light of the generational drought that has the state in a chokehold.

But the snowpack is fickle, and no one is absolutely certain how the weather is going to behave and what will result.

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To that end, there is a $360 million funding effort from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that involves 28 partners, including the University of Utah, to study how to prevent future flooding from mountain snowpack and quality-of-life impacts.

The research may also shape how Utah deals with the drought, with up to $7 million awarded to two U. researchers to participate in the Cooperative Institute for Research to Operations in Hydrology, or CIROH, headquartered at the University of Alabama.

Brigham Young University and Utah State University will also be members of the consortium. 

The efforts of U. civil and environmental engineering assistant professor Carlos Oroza and U. geography assistant professor McKenzie Skiles will help broaden the knowledge of real-time streamflow forecasts and their applicability to varying hydrological conditions.

“Snow is a critical water resource for the state of Utah — it acts as a large-scale natural reservoir, which collects water during the winter then slowly releases it during the spring and summer as streamflow,” Oroza said.

“Unlike engineered reservoirs, however, locally we have limited control over storage and release, therefore real-time streamflow forecasts are essential for water managers and downstream stakeholders. This collaboration is an exciting opportunity to develop new technologies for high-resolution snow monitoring and streamflow forecasting.” 

Water flows in Millcreek Canyon on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. University of Utah researchers will get $7 million in funding to study snowpack and its relationship to the water supply. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

At the university, those researchers will use remote laser sensors, ground sensors and satellite imagery to collect information about the snowpack in Utah.

The team also wants to involve “citizen science” in their effort by hiring people such as backcountry skiers with avalanche probes to obtain additional snow-depth readings. 

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“The snowpack provides the majority of surface water resources to meet local water demand, up to 80% or more, and much of what we don’t get downstream is recharging groundwater, and we want to use that water in the most efficient way possible,” Skiles said. “Developing understanding of how much snow we have and when it will melt will help NOAA provide improved predictions leading to better water management.” 

Both researchers say their efforts will not only benefit Utah but the entire western U.S. where drought conditions are severe.

The research efforts of the consortium will broadly focus on water resource prediction capabilities, as well as the application of social, economic and behavioral science impacts, community water resources modeling, and hydroinformatics, or the development of modeling or information systems for aquatic management.

Those research areas will not only benefit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but partners like the National Weather Service.

“We now begin the real work of co-producing research with NOAA and other partners that will benefit society and provide learning opportunities for students for years to come,” said University of Alabama civil, construction and environmental engineering professor Steven J. Burian, who is the executive director of the consortium.

Burian, who is a former professor of civil and environmental engineering at the U., added, “The research innovations delivered by the cooperative institute will improve forecasts of floods and droughts, increase efficiency of water resources management, protect water quality and empower stakeholders to make confident and timely decisions.” 

That will be important for Utah and other states in the West that deal with the alternate threats of flooding and drought.

The latest report from the Utah Snow Survey, within the Natural Resources Conservation Service, shows that statewide reservoir storage hovers at 56% of capacity, down 12% from this time last year.

Jordan Clayton, Utah Snow Survey supervisor, said the majority of Utah’s basins continue to have alarmingly low surface water supply conditions, indicating that water supplies may be extremely limited in large portions of the state this summer. 

Clayton said particularly concerning are the anticipated water supply conditions in the Sevier, San Pitch, Beaver, Joe’s Valley, Weber-Ogden and Provo basins.