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Sugar House Journal

A tale of two seasons: resorts enjoy strong business while water experts monitor worsening drought

Feb 01, 2021 12h44 ● By Joshua Wood

Skiers and water officials hope to see more snow in the coming months. (Joshua Wood/City Journals)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

Editor’s note: this is the first in a four-part series looking at the state’s drought conditions.

Below normal snowpack totals this winter have contributed to worsening drought conditions and concern for water in an already parched state. So far this season, the effects of Utah’s drought conditions have been mixed. While water resource experts have raised red flags about the severity of the state’s drought conditions, ski resorts have reported a strong start to the season.

“As expected, demand has been high,” said Paul Marshall, director of communications with Ski Utah. “Visits are better than expected.”

Ski resorts throughout the state have reported strong seasons in terms of skier turnout, despite COVID-related safety measures. Below-average snowfall has led to reduced snowpack totals and fewer snow days, but that has not had a significant impact on the ski industry early in the season.

The story is different for Utah’s water supply.

“Everything is sort of hurting right now, and we’re looking for some more snow kind of urgently at this point,” said Jordan Clayton, data collection officer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), in a December presentation to the Board of Water Resources. “We’ve really received a dismal amount of precipitation over the last 12 months, and it’s getting frankly kind of frightening.”

Unless that pattern changes, well-below average snowpack will lead to reduced runoff, even drier soils, and lower reservoir levels.

By December, about 70% of the state had fallen into category D4 drought, or exceptional drought, which is the worst degree of conditions in the NRCS tracking system. The agency’s maps of Utah showed a red swath of drought covering most of the state.

Clayton stated that, while it is statistically possible that conditions could change and trend toward a normal snowpack for the year, Utah has a lot of ground to make up to rejuvenate its water stores. Persistent dry conditions have affected more than just the annual snowpack and reservoir levels. The state’s soils are also parched.

“The fact that we have such extremely dry soils is going to affect the efficiency of our runoffs in the spring,” Clayton said in his presentation to the Board of Water Resources. “We’re going to lose a lot of that snowmelt runoff to our watershed before we can start filling our reservoirs. What that really means effectively is that we are going to need to receive a well-above average snowpack to get even close to an average runoff.”

A tale of two seasons

While low snowpack totals will likely have a significant impact on Utah’s water situation come spring and summer, skiers have made the most of the snow that has fallen.

“We definitely have had a demand for skiing,” said Andria Huskinson, communications manager for Alta Ski Area. “The skiing is still great out there. The snow quality is holding up.” Huskinson said that by mid-January, the resort area had received nearly 140 inches of snowfall.

Just down the canyon, skiing has held up at Snowbird as well. “With 138 inches of snowfall this season to date, accompanied by cold temperatures, we are thankful to have the entire mountain open at Snowbird right now,” said Sarah Sherman, communications manager at Snowbird. “That being said, everyone is eager to have more powder days, soon.”

Even in Southern Utah, where drought conditions have been even worse than along the Wasatch, skiing has been strong so far this season. “Business levels have been surprisingly good,” said Brian Head Public Relations Coordinator Mark Wilder. “Lack of snow hasn’t kept people from coming. We were more worried about the COVID situation than the snow situation.”

During the first few months of the season, concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and necessary safety policies have concerned resorts more than snow levels. “Due to ongoing and effective efforts, mask compliance at Utah resorts has been very good,” said Ski Utah’s Marshall. “Lower than average snowfall has hampered visitation, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Overall, resorts fared better than expected over the holiday period.”

As in communities everywhere, skiers seem to have adjusted to COVID-related protocols, which has helped resorts to a strong start to the season. “Our guests have been very understanding about our community well-being standards, including wearing masks,” said Sarah Huey, communications manager at Solitude Mountain Resort.

Should snowfall remain below average for the rest of the winter, the real impact will likely be felt as the snow melts and thirsty soils soak much of it up before runoff can reach reservoirs.

“Reservoirs are suffering,” Clayton said.