The hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City had a slew of possible scenarios predicting above or below precipitation moving into the winter.
As he showed multiple slides in a PowerPoint presentation given to the members of the Utah Emergency Management Council on Wednesday, Glen Merrill pointed to the various maps on one particular slide.
“Throw a dart,” he said, referring to the possible outcomes that could happen this water year.
While he said there was minimal chance for a repeat of last year’s record snowpack — about 1% — he said there remains room for optimism.
For instance, in October last year the situation was dire.
“The majority of the state was either in extreme or exceptional drought,” he said. “When we look at where we were standing last week, there is less than 10% of the state in moderate drought,” with that area being on the eastern border with Colorado.
While the U.S. Drought Monitor indicates some other areas are abnormally dry, those indicate regions hydrologists and others are just keeping a close eye on.
In terms of current water supplies and soil moisture?
“I will say that we have not been positioned as good as we are now and it is looking really good as we move into the cool season,” he said, likening conditions to 2011. “So that’s good news.”
The West is moving into an El Niño pattern, which is a warming of sea surface temperatures north of the equator. That results in the shift of the jet stream, which Merrill described as the “conveyor belt” for storm systems.
It is a boost for the Southwest, with an increase in precipitation and cooler temperatures.
“The tables are tipped for that outcome in those areas,” he said.
When it comes to regions like the northern Rockies, it leaves Utah in the middle for precipitation.
Looking at the historical record of 29 El Niño episodes, it becomes a set of outcomes that are unpredictable, but Merrill says he remains optimistic for northern Utah due not only to El Niño, but because of other factors.
Soil moisture content, streams that have flows at average even as November is upon us, healthy reservoir levels — all of those things bode well for the state even if there is just an average snowpack next year.
“I like this outlook from where we stand right now,” he said.
Merrill said he expects it to be drier than normal through the end of 2023, but for the snowpack to kick into gear during those critical months of January through March.
“So let’s keep our fingers crossed that this pans out over time,” he said. “The good news is we know we are going to have water.”
Laura Haskell, an engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resources, gave a follow up presentation detailing those healthy stream flows, of which there is just a small minority that are below normal.
Additionally, the majority of Utah reservoirs are moving into this season at about 80% full, which bodes well for next year’s water supply, she added.