This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The high-pressure weather system that has parked itself over Utah and the rest of the West for most of the winter is taking a toll on the state's snowpack.
The most recent glimpse of snowpack totals in Utah's six major river basins paints a fairly grim picture. After ending 2006 - and the first three months of the water year - with near-normal precipitation, Utah has seen a long dry spell shrivel snowpacks to as low as 64 percent of normal in the north and 69 percent in the south.
What makes this all the more troubling, says National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney, is that the dry weather pattern is occurring in the midst of an El Niño, a weather pattern created by warming water temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean. More often than not under such conditions, the Western U.S. gets plenty of moisture via a warm air flow that pushes up from the southwest.
No such luck this time. Most of the recent storm activity has surged down from the Northwest. And when those systems have hit the ridge of the high pressure sitting over the West, they split to the north and south - leaving everything in the middle high and dry.
"Think of the ridge as a big bubble," McInerney said Wednesday. "That has sent a lot of storm activity into Canada, and Washington and Oregon, which are doing exceptionally well. So are places in the south, like Tucson and El Paso. It's really been this way since November. And we're not seeing anything right now that will change it."
For at least the next seven days the weather pattern should remain stagnant along the Wasatch Front, with foggy, hazy conditions and daytime temperatures in the low 30s and lows in the mid-teens.
Skies are forecast to be clear in St. George, with highs in the low 50s and lows in the low 30s.
The result of this continuing holding pattern, according to McInerney, is a distinctly downbeat snowpack forecast. Not only for the Wasatch Front and the rest of Utah, but the entire Colorado River Basin, which is technically still in a drought that now dates back to the start of the decade.
"If we look at this statistically, the probability of reaching normal snowpack is greatly diminished with the numbers we have," he said. "It's going to be really hard to make up that kind of snowfall in the period of time we have left."
Utah ski resorts, not surprisingly, are hurting.
In the Cottonwood canyons, Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton all had base totals of less than 60 inches on Wednesday.
The Park City resorts - Park City, Deer Valley and The Canyons - were all under 50 inches.
"I think we're at the point in the season where people are beginning to realize that they need to ski the mountain as it is, because we've now had a couple of long, extended periods without new snow and we're not seeing anything on the horizon," said Snowbird spokeswoman Laura Schaffer.
"But all things considered, things are actually pretty good," she added. "We've had 154 inches of snow [for the season] and the whole mountain is covered. The locals know we're spoiled. We've had over 600 inches in each of the last two seasons. But that's not going to happen all the time."
The ongoing winter drought is not without good news.
McInerney says most of the state's reservoirs are filled above normal seasonal levels and soil moisture remains good after two straight years of normal to above-normal precipitation around the state.
The hydrologist also believes all is not lost. With a good, wet spring, the state could yet recoup some of the snowpack it has lost in recent weeks.
"We can still get a pretty efficient runoff if the spring climate cooperates," McInerney said. "If it shifts to wet and cold, we could yet increase the snowpack 25 percent in our favor because it will keep what's up there longer.
"Really, anything goes. Because this El Niño has behaved so atypically, we don't really have a good feel for what's going to happen the rest of the winter. It's a real unknown."