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Utah hydrologist: Soil moisture this fall is cause for optimism

SALT LAKE CITY — With more moisture moving in, Utah is likely to get another dose of what it needs this fall to start making a dent in the drought.

It was a hot, dry summer, but as a hydrologist shows us, there’s more reason this fall to be optimistic than there was a year ago.

It’s going to take a couple of winters with above-average snowpack to get out of this drought, according to Jordan Clayton, the Utah Snow Survey Supervisor with Natural Resources Conservation Service. But, at least this fall, there’s a glimmer of hope.

“We are definitely encouraged by the precipitation that we have received,” Clayton said.

Utah’s new water year started Oct. 1, and so far, precipitation is above average, with another storm moving in.

“We are only 17 days into the water year, so we don’t want to make too much out of it, but we’re off to a good start,” said Clayton.

He’s encouraged by what he’s seen with monsoonal moisture over the past two months, especially the benefit to Utah’s soil moisture. Those recent rains help prepare the soil for next spring.

“That helps to really prime the pump, if you will, for next year’s runoff,” he said.

When precipitation this fall saturates the soil, more snowmelt runoff makes it into Utah’s reservoirs next spring, instead of soaking into the soil.

An attached graph compares soil saturation in Utah during the last decade. The black line shows soil moisture this year, climbing sharply.

(Natural Resources Conservation Service — United States Department of Agriculture)

“Last year, at this time, we were setting new minimums. We were off the charts bad,” Clayton said. “We were in territory where we just hadn’t seen since we installed the probes close to 20 years ago.”

This year, Clayton said, the recent rains made a difference. But, even though it’s storming again, Utah could still warm up and dry out and lose some of that soil moisture before the snow that falls really starts to accumulate.

“We really need it this year,” Clayton said. “The benefit of having these above-average soil moisture conditions is going to be lost if we don’t get a good snowpack.”

The soil moisture helps to prepare for the spring, but Utah still needs that snowmelt to fill the reservoirs, which are below 50% statewide.

Replenishing the reservoirs is a critical component to bringing an end to the drought.

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