Utah is having its best winter in nearly 20 years

Historic conditions ensure the snowpack will be above-normal for the rest of the season

Toria Barnhart
Park Record
Snowmobiles travel near the Provo River, along Mirror Lake Highway east of Samak. The Provo-Utah Lake-Jordan basin reported record-high snow water equivalent conditions on Wednesday.
David Jackson/Park Record

UTAH — Commuters traveling through Parleys Canyons, skiers taking advantage of fresh powder at area resorts and officials working at the state level are all in agreement: Utah is having an exceptional winter. 

There are historic and record-breaking snowpack conditions across the state, which have contributed to making this season one of the best winters in nearly 20 years, according to Jordan Clayton, a supervisor with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Utah Snow Survey. The snowfall has aided in Utah’s recovery from the drought, helping to eliminate exceptional drought conditions throughout the state, and is expected to provide much-needed relief to reservoirs this spring.

“We’re nowhere near the end of winter, but for this particular date, we haven’t seen snow water equivalent totals this high, from a statewide perspective, since 2005. This is notable because 2011 was an outstanding winter. And it’s still possible that our peak snowpack won’t be as high, but as of today, we are beating 2011,” Clayton said.

The snow water equivalent as of Wednesday was 195% of normal, according to a special snow survey report. Clayton considers this measurement to be the most important because it determines how much water there would be in the state’s reservoirs if the snowpack melted. 

There are still around 75 days until the snowpack typically peaks but the snowfall that’s already occurred is enough to guarantee the snowpack will remain above normal for the rest of winter, according to the report. The current snow water equivalent throughout the state is approximately 101% of what peak conditions normally are.

“We’re roughly 80 days ahead of schedule,” he said. “Everything else is extra.”

The Utah Snow Survey, using data from previous years, predicted the maximum snow water equivalent will reach roughly 22 inches – which is around 155% of normal – by early April. 

The report states that every major basin in the state is greater than 160% of normal snow water equivalent, except for the Raft watershed in northwest Utah. Nine basins, including the one that contains the Provo River, are greater than 200%. The Provo-Utah Lake-Jordan watershed also reported record-high snow water equivalent as of Wednesday. Clayton noted another Summit County water source, the Weber River Basin, is doing great.

Forecasts indicate that snow is likely to continue through the beginning of February, though the rest of the season is unknown. The National Weather Service issued several winter storm warnings for Southern Utah ahead of the weekend. Light snow was expected throughout the Wasatch Mountains.

Additional storms are needed to help build the snowpack and ensure the state’s reservoirs are replenished when the seasons change. Clayton said an excellent snowpack will lead to overall drought reduction.

“When we consider drought, we have to consider the different categories. We tend to think of drought as how long it has been since it’s rained or snowed. That’s one type of drought,” he said. “We, particularly in the west, are heavily impacted by what we would call hydrological drought, which has much more to do with how much we’re storing and how much our reserves have been depleted.”

He continued, “From that perspective, it’s really a mixed story. We’ll have more information later in the spring, but we expect quite a lot of our reservoirs to be replenished within the state of Utah. There are some that are so depleted they won’t fill up … but this is going to be great for our reservoirs. This is going to do a lot to help the systems.”

The snowpack has helped raise the Great Salt Lake by a foot after it reached a historic low in November, but it’s unlikely to do much more to replenish water levels there or at Lake Powell. Clayton and other water officials have estimated it would take years of work to recover.

“We could still end up going flat from here forward, which is always a concern, but it’s really great territory to be in,” he said.

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