Spring ends a tale of 2 winters in Utah
Associated Press Writer
SALT LAKE CITY – Two winters came to Utah this year.
One, in southern Utah, delivered storm after storm that piled deeper-than-normal drifts of snow in the mountains.
The other, in northern Utah, offered only sporadic snow but nothing close to the 30-year average.
The jet stream that carries moisture from the Pacific pushed south this year, thanks to El Nino, delivering more precipitation to southern Utah and shorting the northern part of the state, according to Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.
Mountain snowpack that melts each spring is the main source for drinking water and crop irrigation in the state.
Less-than-normal runoff this spring, which began Saturday, is expected this year in northern Utah but McInerney said the effects will be lessened by water left over from last year’s above-average moisture.
That abundant water – rainfall in June was 400 percent of normal last year in some places – allowed farmers to irrigate their crops and suburbanites to moisten their lawns without dipping deep into storage reservoirs.
In some places the snowpack is only about half of average.
“We should make it through this year OK,” McInerney said. “But we definitely don’t want to see back-to-back years like this.”
Robert Gillies, director of the climate center at Utah State University, said it’s likely northern Utah will see a few more drier-than-usual winters before things turn around.
He and other researchers published a paper earlier this year detailing a predictable relationship between sea surface temperatures in part of the Pacific Ocean and precipitation in northern Utah. The 12-year cycle is at a point where precipitation is predicted to tail off.
Southern Utah was a different story this winter.
The region was pounded with regular storms that filled the mountains with snow, sometimes building up snowpack more than twice the average.
Alec Hornstein, who owns Tushar Mountain Tours in southern Utah, said he’s seen a dramatic increase in business, including skiers from the Wasatch Mountains looking for fresh backcountry powder and somewhere with less avalanche danger.
“For our business, it’s probably the best year ever,” Hornstein said.
It has also raised some concerns about flooding, and memories of 2005 when the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers left their banks, destroying about 15 homes and forcing about two dozen more to be condemned.
McInerney said spring runoffs will be high this spring in southern Utah but the risk of flooding will be lessened because of river channels that have been deepened in recent years.
“The wildcard is thunderstorm activity,” he said.
A few big, wet storms could lead to temporary flooding, he said.
A spring storm with that kind of power isn’t out of the question. Last March, Alta ski resort near Salt Lake City got 14 feet of snow in 14 days.
Local skiers wouldn’t mind a repeat.
Resorts in Utah likely didn’t see any decrease from out-of-town skiers because of this year’s winter conditions, but locals – which make up roughly half the resorts’ business – may have stayed away in larger-than-usual numbers, said Nathan Rafferty, president of the trade group Ski Utah.
“Locals are looking for those powder days, that’s what we’re known for, that’s what they live for,” Rafferty said.
Those have come less frequently this year. Still, for a state that gets 500 inches of snow each year, 80 percent of average is still pretty impressive, he said.
“All things being equal, we’re lucky to have what we have,” he said.