Climate data: How much did Utah’s spring storms contribute to the state’s drought?

A cyclist crosses Bonneville Boulevard near the mouth of City Creek Canyon on a cloudy spring evening in Salt Lake City on April 27. Storms in March, April and May brought rain and snow across the state, but not enough to match spring normals. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)

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SALT LAKE CITY – A storm system that passed the Wasatch Mountains dumped as much like a foot of snow in the Alta region over the weekendwhich equates to at least half an inch of new water for many parts of the range.

But as stormy as the past few weeks have been in Utah, they haven’t produced as much as spring storms have in the past — and that’s fueling the return of severe categories of drought in the state, says KSL meteorologist Matt Johnson .

“The reason it may feel like a wet spring is that we’ve had a lot of small storms and days and months where we’ve seen clouds or cooler weather, but they haven’t delivered a ton water with them,” Johnson said Monday on KSL NewsRadio’s Dave and Dujanovic.

This is the case of Salt Lake City which until Sunday had already recorded at least a trace of precipitation over 32 days of this meteorological spring. Storms in March, April and now May produced 2.95 inches of precipitation, according to National Weather Service data updated through Sunday.

Although there are eight more storm days than at the same time last spring, the city is actually 0.4 inches lower than last spring’s total through May 8. The current total is also well below the city’s 30-year spring normal of 5.73 inches, which means 2.78 inches of precipitation is needed in the last three weeks of May for the city to reach the mean spring level since 1991.

“That’s sort of been the trend of the last three springs,” Johnson continued, pointing to below-average springs in 2020 and 2021.

A dry spring

This low spring moisture production is not unique to Salt Lake City. National environmental information centers released a report on Monday the one found last month was Utah’s driest April 25 since statewide data was first collected in 1895.

With a bad end to the winter months, All of Utah’s 2022 calendar year is again on the beat of one of his driest ever recorded. The state average of 2.37 inches of water collected since Jan. 1 is the third-lowest in the first third of a year on record. Only 1972 and 1977 had drier starts in the first four months of a year in the last 128 years of data collection.

The dry start is the reason nearly all of Utah is rated at least severe drought while approximately 44% of Utah is listed in extreme drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.

Recent storms have helped cool the state down a bit, which has helped some with the snowmelt equation. The first third of 2022 was the 37th hottest on record, but still 1.7 degrees above the 20th century average.

“It avoids the start of our snowmelt,” Johnson said. “Usually we melt it a bit in April and May – and in June a bit. But with the cooler weather, adding a bit of snow, we prevent that from happening. That’s good news, c is the silver lining.”

Utah is not alone in this problem. The National Centers for Environmental Information points out that California had its driest start since 1895, while Nevada also produced its third driest station on record.

What about streams and reservoirs?

There’s still about 3.8 inches of water left in the statewide snowpack, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This number is about 59% of normal for the stretch before all the snow collected this year is melted.

This will flow into the reservoirs, which are extremely thirsty not only from the last few years of drought, but from the 20-year-old mega-drought.

Utah’s entire reservoir system is at about 60% capacity, up from 67% at the same time last year. Additionally, more than half of the state’s 96 measured streams are also flowing below normal right now despite runoff, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Utah’s current drought situation dates back to around this time two years ago. With Monday’s update, the first third of 2020 is now the 17th driest on record. The 2020 calendar year ended the driest on record, as summer monsoons and fall rainfall each disappeared.

“That’s what really dug us into a hole,” Johnson said. “It put us in a really bad drought situation.”

The 2021 calendar year was on pace with an equally dry year until the monsoons returned in full force and the year ended with a series of severe winter storms. It had the 18th driest first third of a year and ended up just 0.01 inch below the 20th century average, but not enough to fully pull Utah out of its drought.

Utah's drought situation in the first week of May in 2021 compared to 2022. Utah's drought situation is not as severe as last spring, but reservoir levels are lower.
Utah’s drought situation in the first week of May in 2021 compared to 2022. Utah’s drought situation is not as severe as last spring, but reservoir levels are lower. (Photo: US Drought Observatory)

The big difference in the outcome of the two years is why Utah’s drought isn’t as severe as it was in early May of last year, but reservoirs are lower than they weren’t at this time last year. Precipitation to close out 2021 moistened Utah soils but did not completely fill reservoirs.

There wasn’t enough snow this year to cover the losses of the past two years – or 20 years for larger reservoirs, like Lake Powell.

What happens afterwards?

So what’s on the horizon? There is still stormy weather in the current cycle, but not enough to overcome the rainfall deficits. A storm system is expected to cross the state Wednesday evening, bringing a mix of mountain snow and valley rain, according to Johnson.

It’s impossible to know whether this year’s dry start will result in a 2020-like year or a repeat of 2021.

the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drizzly weather of the past few weeks will end after this week, creating drier than average conditions for the start of summer.

Basil Newmerzhycky, chief meteorologist for Great Basin Predictive Services, said at a fire season outlook event last week that the long-range forecast offers optimism that the monsoons will return to Utah this summer. , which likely won’t get the state drought or any other reservoir issues, but could reduce some of the state’s fire danger by August.

“Some of the large-scale climate variables are in place and would create a fairly robust monsoon again – starting on or around July 4,” he said.

Ultimately, the only solution is to repeat the water years 2017 or 2019 and not the last two years. In 2017 and 2019, Utah experienced large storms producing above-normal totals strong enough to fill most of the state’s reservoirs and lift drought orders.

With the snow season all but over, Governor Spencer Cox has issued another drought emergency statement and water officials are urging conservation as this winter and spring have not halted the drought as they had hoped.

It’s also why experts are already starting to think about the next snow collection season as a way out of the cycle.

“We dug ourselves into a rut,” Johnson said. “To get out of this, we don’t just need a good year or a good spring, we need two or three to get back to where we need to be.”

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Carter Williams is an award-winning journalist who covers general news, the outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a transplant from Utah via Rochester, New York.

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