Most of this winter, storm fronts have rolled in from the Pacific with a nearly quotidian cadence. Alta Ski Area, for instance, reached its 500-inch snowfall total in late February, and a full month remains in its season.
It’s been a dream for the resort and travel industry, whose leaders were biting their nails straight through this past November in fear of another dry season. Snowbird resort spokeswoman Laura Schaffer describes the calming effect of the snowfall: “Last year, when it was an unusually low snow year, I would get calls all the time with people asking, ‘What does it mean—is this because of global warming?’ This year, I think I’ve only gotten one concerned phone call.”
Compare it to the winter of 2006-07, a handwringer of a season for winter resorts and water conservation experts alike. The Utah Avalanche Center’s annual report characterized it as “the driest winter since 1977 and the fourth driest winter in 62 years of recordkeeping at the Alta Guard station, where 356 inches of snow fell compared to the average of 500.”
The water-use czars along the Wasatch Front are thrilled with the current snowpack. But as scientists and engineers, they look at one wet winter with long-term perspective. And all indications are that Utah’s dependence on abundant and heavy snow for water will likely shift toward warmer winters with more rain than snowfall. That will certainly mean a change in how cities store water and how we use it.
“People surmise that, because it is cold and we are getting more snow this year, how could it be global warming?” says Robert Gillies, director of the Utah Climate Center.
A report Gillies helped prepare for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change indicates this sense of relief is incongruent with the actual situation. “Ongoing greenhouse-gas emissions at or above current levels will likely result in a decline in Utah’s mountain snowpack, and the threat of severe and prolonged episodic drought in Utah is real,” he wrote.
It might not seem real when so many Utahns have routinely awakened to a dusting of snow on their doorsteps.
Those who measure water for a living are accustomed to the eye-rolling and long sighs they get for preaching conservation—especially in a wet year. “We don’t know all of the effects yet. Our overall snowpack and precipitation have been dropping, on average,” says Vicki Bennett, director of Salt Lake City’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment. “Seasonal weather variations and long-term climate change are two completely different things. One good or bad season, or even a few, that doesn’t mean a thing. The science of climate change is based on centuries of data.”
Snow from the Wasatch Range typically melts off neatly, providing a reliable natural water reservoir. All too soon, however, we may be seeing less snow.
Fewer powder days may be one thing, but a significant depletion of water is another thing entirely. And it has Jeff Niermeyer, director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities, wondering about our collective future.
“Typically, our Wasatch snowpack begins in November and lasts until the middle of April,” Niermeyer says. “But we’ll begin to see a precipitation cycle with no snow until late November or early December, with significant melting patterns by early March.
“This last summer was the driest on record in Salt Lake City. And a shift toward an even drier climate needs to be accounted for and prepared for. Our precipitation will change from snow-driven to rain-driven, so our methods of delivering water must change,” he says.
Water experts are trying to get out ahead of the anticipated shift from snow- to rain-based precipitation. One method—aquifier storage and recovery (ASR)—relies on collection and injection of rainwater into the ground, where it’s kept until the hotter summer season. ASR is currently under study as a pilot project at the Metropolitan Water District that serves Salt Lake City and Sandy.
Niermeyer adds it’s possible the city may elect to enlarge Little Dell dam between Parley’s and Emigration canyons. It stores about 21,000 acre-feet of water but was originally considered able to hold more than twice that amount.
The potential shift from heavy snow depths to rain, as many climate models indicate, will demand constant vigilance in managing water, experts say. And then there’s the boom in Utah population. Education leaders have been warning that the state’s school-age population will double in the next 10 years and Utah, along with other Western states, still appeals to transplants with a storied reputation for wide-open spaces.
Nobody wants to face the dire predictions, and water conservation talk is decidedly unsexy, says Mark Danenhauer, rivers solutions manager for the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council.
“We’re living in a period of what we call ‘drought rebound,’” Danenhauer says. “People don’t see a need to cut back.” But the URC and other conservation groups keep advocating a 25-percent cut in state water consumption by 2050, he says. That can be accomplished by thoughtful conservation and by shifting to more water-wise sprinkling systems and household appliances.
If Utah—the second driest state behind Nevada—met that 25-percent decrease, “We could save 450,000-acre feet of water a year,” Danenhauer says. “That’s more water than we’ll get from a Lake Powell pipeline and the Bear River [dams] projects combined.”