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A major winter storm expected this weekend could soak northern Utah's parched slopes with much-needed precipitation.
While the storm could snarl traffic and leave BYU football fans in the deep-freeze, it might also hasten the opening of ski resorts.
"A very cold winter storm is moving into the region Friday and persisting into Sunday," said Steve Rogowski, a forecaster for the National Weather Service's Salt Lake office. "We should feel the storm Thursday when southerly winds start gusting at 40 to 50 miles per hour with even stronger winds across portions of western Utah."
The cold front should move through the Wasatch Front on Friday morning, lowering temperatures and bringing rain changing to snow by Friday afternoon. Forecasters expect the snow to be heavy at times and persist through Sunday.
The possibility of a storm expected to bring as much as three feet of snow into northern Utah's mountains had concerned water watchers smiling and ski resorts looking at lifts operating as soon as Saturday. The Natural Resources Conservation Service in Salt Lake City said in its Utah climate and water report for October that soil moisture and reservoir storage are lower than normal.
"The bottom line was that October was pretty dry," said Randy Julander, supervisor of the service's snow survey staff. "Reservoir storage is way low. Moisture is also low. We need a good winter, though we can get by with an average year. This [predicted weekend storm] looks good. I hope it absolutely clobbers the state from north to south and gets us off to an early start."
Ski Utah's Susie English said the storm's cold temperatures will help resorts make snow and create a base on main runs before the big Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Brighton appears to be the first Utah resort poised to open. English said she skied down from the top of the Majestic chairlift at the Big Cottonwood resort on Tuesday.
"With a couple of night's cold temperatures, they could be close to opening," she said. "We are hoping that the ski lifts open at the very earliest this weekend, but we definitely expect them to be running next week."
BYU football fans attending the Cougars' final home game of the season against Idaho, slated for an 8:15 p.m. Saturday start, will need to bundle up. Rogowski said the temperature will hover around freezing at game time and drop through the night. Snow showers are a definite possibility.
He stressed this will be a statewide storm, with St. George likely seeing temperatures below freezing Saturday and Sunday nights. Sections of Interstate 15 between Cedar City and Fillmore could see snow, though recent balmy temperatures that kept ground and road temperatures warm may alleviate some of the impact.
"I feel confident that in some areas we will see some winter driving conditions," said Rogowski. "The mountains will see a prolonged storm with one to three feet of snow. The wild card with this storm is how much lake effect snow we are going to see. There is a strong possibility that we will see some lake influence Saturday morning east and southeast of the Great Salt Lake moving southeast or south Sunday morning."
The temperature drop will be extreme. Wednesday's high in Salt Lake City hit 70 degrees and 68 was expected Thursday. The predicted high for Friday is 42 degrees, dropping to a low of 26. Saturday's predicted high is 35, with a low of 24. There is a 90 percent chance of snow on Saturday and an 80 percent chance on Sunday.
Water watchers are hoping the storm kicks off a big winter after last season's relatively warm, dry one.
Currently, Utah's reservoirs are at 60 percent of capacity compared to about 85 percent at this time a year ago. Year to date precipitation totals in Utah run from a high of 94 percent of normal in the Weber-Ogden area to a low of 52 percent in southeastern Utah.