As winter approaches, Utah remains in drought, needing multiple years of heavy snowpack

Utah Drought

GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Remember that record-setting drought that seemed to headline the weather reports nearly every day this last summer?

It’s not over, not by a long shot.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map of Utah produced by the University of Nebraska shows that the entire state remains primarily in extreme drought conditions, even in the middle of November. Nearly 10% of the state is in the highest designation possible, exceptional drought, and almost 80% of the area is in the second-highest category, extreme drought.

Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor

While a historically wet October made a sizable dent in Utah’s water year needs, there is still a long way to go, according to Utah Division of Water Resources Spokesperson Michael Sanchez.

There is a lot riding on this winter’s snowpack and future snowpacks for the next few years.

“We need at least about three or four years of really solid snowpack to get us out of this drought,” Sanchez explains to ABC4.com.

One of the most common laments heading to Utah’s worst-ever drought last summer was the low snowpack from the winter before. Sanchez also says poor soil moisture was to blame, likening what happened in the previous water year to a commonly used kitchen and bathroom item.

“Because we don’t have good soil moisture, most of that snowpack just goes straight into the soil. You can think of it kind of like a sponge,” he says. “If you have a wet sponge, then most of that water will run off and go into those reservoirs. If you have a dry sponge leading up into the snowpack, then it’ll just get soaked into the soil.”

As it stands now, Utah, along with most of the western U.S., besides the famously rainy Pacific Northwest, has a fairly dry sponge to work with, according to the National Weather Service’s calculations.

Courtesy of National Weather Service

Residents who wish to see Utah escape the drought and enjoy fewer restrictions and public advisories during the summer – certainly Gov. Spencer Cox would likely prefer to not have to address the dangers of the dry conditions as he did nearly every week a few months ago – need to hope for a lot of rain and snow soon.

Getting the reservoirs as full as possible with a sizeable snowfall, prefaced by solid soil moisture, is vital to the welfare and comfortability of the state, in addition to the recreation potential on the water.

Some areas are doing much better than others at the moment. Sand Hollow in Southern Utah sits at 70% full, a stark contrast from Lake Powell’s 29% fill. Looking at the big picture, 37 of the 45 largest reservoirs are below 55% of available capacity. Overall, Utah is at 49% of reservoir capacity.

Courtesy of Utah Division of Water Resources

Is it at all realistic that the Utah weather could reel off the three or four consecutively great snowpack years needed to pull the state out of the drought?

Sanchez says there is some historical precedent that says yes.

“It definitely can happen,” he affirms. “I can’t tell that far into the future with all of this but it has happened before. I know the Great Salt Lake hit a historic low in the 60s and then had a historic high in the 80s. So anything can happen.”

Sanchez’s optimistic example is poignant considering the Great Salt Lake reached its all-time lowest depth earlier this year.

So while a lot of what happens to our reservoirs and water supply in Utah depends on the weather, something that is largely out of the control of human hands, there are still some conservation efforts we can make even in the colder months.

“Transitioning into the winter, there are definitely things that every person can do,” Sanchez states. “Things like checking for leaks in your plumbing system, running full loads of laundry, running full loads in your dishwasher, things like that, everyone can do [something] to conserve water.”

It might seem odd to think about a drought in the winter but the reality is Utah is still very much in one. Getting out is going to take a long time – and a lot of rain and snow.

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