For some Sanpete County farmers, all they need to do to dismiss a report that climate warming in the Mountain West may lead to snowless mountain tops and barren reservoirs is raise their eyes to Horseshoe Mountain.
There they will see a field of white snow filling the bowl, with assurances that all is well. However, deep down, and going into the third year of drought, Utah’s water managers suspect there could be some truth in warnings that if trends continue, the Mountain West could go for whole winters without snow.
Utah water researchers are noticing a troubling trend that is probably related to climate change, said Jordan Clayton, hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“We are seeing a tendency for a later onset of snowpack and earlier melt of snowpack, particularly in the medium to lower elevations,” he said.
The changes are not as obvious in higher elevations SNOTEL sites, such as Buck Flat and Mount Baldy, he said. SNOTEL sites are remote weather stations that measure snow depths and densities.
Another notable trend in Utah is more extreme weather, he said. “We’ve had some really large snow years,” he said. “But unfortunately, they have been outnumbered by a large number of very poor snow years, and there hasn’t been a lot of what you’d call ‘average’ snow years.”
Nonetheless, Clayton isn’t expecting Utah’s famous snow to disappear anytime soon, but he is concerned about the trends. The extremes are challenging to deal with, and Utah is experiencing a decreased amount of snow relative to rain at lower elevations.
In the Sanpete Valley, farmers are concerned that water levels are dropping. In the last two years, they have suffered through a very bad drought, said Utah State University Extension Agent Matt Palmer.
“The water situation is dire,” Palmer said. “But we don’t know if this is just a cycle and we will bounce out of it, or if it will continue.”
The problem farmers have in northern Sanpete County is a lack of reservoirs, Palmer said. “Our reservoir is the snow on the mountain. So when we don’t have a good snowpack and it comes down too fast or soaks into the soil too quickly, that’s when our problems come.”
Palmer went on to say this about the seriousness of the drought: “With one year of drought, farmers make it through; with two years of drought, the farmers’ situation is dire; if we go into the third year of drought like we’ve had in the past two years, many farmers will go out of business, and production will drastically be reduced. This is a major economic issue.”
So far this water year, which started in October, precipitation in Sanpete County and Utah overall is well above average.
Both Palmer and Clayton agree that fall moisture is the first step to a good water year.
“When we go into the fall dry, even if we have a decent snowpack, the water soaks into the ground and does not come down into the streams and into the irrigation systems,” Palmer said.
Last year, soils were very dry, Clayton said. “But we are going into this season with above average soil moisture. This is kind of like a check in your pocket knowing you are going to have more efficient delivery of water. Once the snow starts to melt, you won’t lose as much of it.”
No one knows if the recent drought is a sign of global warming or just a regular drought cycle.
A recent story in the Washington Post cited a report from Nature Reviews Earth and Environment that said if greenhouse gasses aren’t reduced, in 35 to 60 years, mountainous states could be snowless for years at a time.
Due to rising temperatures, the region has already lost 20 percent of its snowpack since the 1950s, the report said. In addition to the 20 percent loss, snowpack is peaking and melting off earlier in the year and is expected to continue on that track.
Both USU Extension and the Utah Division of Water Resources have published reports on climate change. USU Extension just recently published a report called “Utah’s Champagne Powder: Still Steep But Not So Deep,” which found that minimum daily temperatures are rising at faster rates at Utah’s 14 ski resorts, and, as a result, snowpack, snow quality and season length are decreasing.
A Utah Division of Water Resources report stated Utah’s historical weather records from 1950 to 2017 show that average temperatures increased by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit with only modest changes in average annual precipitation. The report went on to say that observed Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) records show a decreasing trend of snowpack over time.
In addition, the report found that climate models predict an increase in the fraction of precipitation falling as rain rather than snow. The compounded effects of changes in precipitation type, escalated warming, and changes in snowmelt timing will lead to shifts in the timing of spring runoff by one to three weeks by the 2060s and by about four weeks by the end of the current century.