Utah's 2020 Drought Likely To Impact Water Supply This Year

Mar 1, 2021

Graph showing percent soil saturation for Utah for 2021 (lower black line) compared with 30-year minimum (red), average (green) and high (blue) percent saturation.
Credit Jordan Clayton / Natural Resource Conservation Service

Last year, Utah experienced its worst drought in 20 years. Typically Utahns count on spring snowpack to remedy a dry year and while February snows have been a boon to ski areas the question remains: are they enough to generate an average water supply? 

“In an average year, we'd still have about 40 more days of getting snowpack. So this storm was great. But we're still supposed to be adding to that," said Laura Haskell who is the senior engineer with Utah Water Resources.

She updates the U.S. Drought Monitor with Utah’s drought conditions. With 90% of the state is in extreme drought and 57% in exceptional drought, more snow is needed.

“One of the things that’s unique about this year is that yes, right now, we have 81-82% of normal snowpack for the state. But the big problem is the soil moisture, because we are in a domain that we have just not seen before," said Jordan Clayton.

Clayton is a data collection officer with the National Resources Conservation Service, and is responsible for Utah's snow survey. He said that even if Utah gets a normal snowpack by early April, stream runoff would still be well below average of how dry the soils are.

“Even though over the last few years we’ve had a couple years that were average or even slightly above average, precipitation-wise, the late summer and fall has just been very dry,” Paul Miller said.

Miller is a service coordination hydrologist for the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. He notes streamflow in most of Utah is below normal.

He said based on current conditions at Lake Powell, they are likely forecasting the driest flow on record – about 60 years – in April. That forecast determines how much flow is going to be released out of Lake Powell for the rest of the water year. That impacts all of us.

“The allocation of those water resources has huge impacts on what you’re seeing available in your grocery store and at your farmers market," Miller said.

Haskell noted that municipal residents may not know how current conditions impact the water supply for others, because they get water from a stored system. By being aware earlier of water conditions people can reduce their landscape water use which is one way to help.