Hydrologists say Utah’s heavy snowfall due to El Nino, but effect not likely to last through spring

Posted at 8:04 PM, Jan 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-08 22:04:50-05

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – While December brought a lot of snowstorms and good snowpack to Utah’s mountains, hydrologists say residents shouldn't think they’re in the clear just yet when it comes to the drought.

They say the storms are an effect of El Nino, and they're concerned they won’t last through the spring.

Hydrologist Brian McInerney with the National Weather Service says Utahns should be cautiously optimistic about the recent snowstorms Utah has seen. He says, so far, it’s only an average year and there needs to be above-average conditions in order to bring the water levels back to normal.

The past four years have been dry in Utah.

“Really, last year, we had run-off in January, so when you look at early melt, that’s very inefficient,” McInernery said. “You lose a lot to evaporation. The plants come back to life, the roots take up the water, and it transpires it into the air and you lose up to 50 percent of your snow-water equivalent.”

Last year, Utah’s reservoir levels were at an all-time low. McInerney said we would have to have above-average snowfall through April in order to create enough run-off.

“We’d need snowpack about 140 to 150 percent of normal on April 1st,” McInerney said. “If we did have that volume of snow in the mountains, and even at the mid-and low-elevations, we could put together a normal run-off, which would be wonderful at this point.”

McInerney said even though Northern Utah’s mountains and ski resorts have good snowpack right now, when the snow melts, Utah’s parched soil will soak up most of the water, leaving very little water run-off.

“We’re only looking at about 60 percent of the run-off coming out in the spring,” McInerney said. “And the reason for that is, we’ve had four years of excessively dry conditions. So our ground water is low. Our soils are dry. So, when it starts to melt in the spring, we’re going to see a loss as that water melts, it goes down into the soils and then down into the groundwater.”

McInerney said the big storms are an effect of El Nino, and while they’re helpful for ski resorts, he doesn’t expect them to last.

“This very strong El Nino is anticipated to go back to neutral conditions sometime in the early spring,” he said.

McInerney said it would take several years of above average conditions, with good precipitation throughout the winter and spring, to get back to normal levels.

“You’d want a continued storm activity up until April, and then you’d want storms going through April into May, and then bring a lot of rain, then flip the switch, turn the sun on, bring the heat out and melt it as fast as you can, and that’s when we’re going to get our best yield,” he said.

Mcinerney said there’s no telling what the future will bring for precipitation in Utah in the coming years. He said all residents can do is enjoy the storms while they last and always remember to conserve water in their daily lives.