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In-Depth: Utah's once robust snowpack back to normal after dry January

Posted at 9:16 AM, Jan 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-28 11:16:08-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's overall average snowpack on January 9 was 9 inches, which was 38% above the median for that day. Since then, the state has gained .1 inch of Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) while the median for January 27 is 8.5 inches.

If Utah doesn’t get snow before February, the statewide SWE will cross the line from "above" to "at or below" medians. Moreover, the state average doesn't represent where most residents get water.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service updates SWE every day using over 140 monitoring stations around Utah. Those stations provide information specific enough to determine how each region of the state is doing when it comes to SWE.

In substance, SWE is only important at the time when snow accumulation ends and the spring melt begins. If you don’t have any snow in January, major storms in February and March would fix the problem.

But SWE is also critical helping water users anticipate the likelihood of a problem. A less than median snowpack in late January makes a poor runoff more likely, prompting us to consider our priorities and policies in advance.

Statewide, and in all of Utah’s basins, water storage in reservoirs has reached critical levels and 2022 needs to meet or exceed median SWE to avoid difficult choices to prioritize water use for everything from recreation to landscaping to agriculture and, ultimately, to its most critical, life-sustaining purposes.

The median peak for SWE in Utah is 16 inches on the ground in early April.

The statewide median for January 27 is 8.5 inches, meaning if Utah doesn’t add more snow in the coming week, we will be below median statewide.

Statewide SWE medians help understand the big picture, but it’s the totals in Utah’s major basins that determine water availability where each Utahn lives. In other words, if the mountains above St. George and Cedar City have a lot of snow, that doesn't help Salt Lake County water users.

St. George is doing well. In a median year, they would peak with 11.9 inches in early March. Their peak comes early because of the warmer climate. The daily median for January 27 is 6.1 inches, and they have 10.7 inches this year. now.

The Bear River Basin is the other high population region "above" median for the year. They would normally peak at 19.2 inches in April, and on January 27, the median is 10.7 inches. They actually have 10.7 inches on January 27, 2022.

But the two basins serving the great majority of Utah residents have already slipped below their median levels for this time of year.

The basin feeding Salt Lake and Utah Counties runs through the Provo River, Utah Lake and the Jordan River. They would reach a median peak at 20 inches of SWE in April of a normal year. To be on track on January 27, the median is 10.7 inches, and on that day in 2022, they had 10.4 inches.

The Weber and Ogden river basins serve Davis and Weber Counties. Their median peak in April is 21.1 inches of SWE. Their January 27 median is 11.5 inches, but in 2022 their January 27 SWE is 11 inches.