Snowpack Monitoring in the Central Wasatch
This season has brought record breaking snow to the Wasatch Front. Statewide, snowfall is nearly double its average for this time of year, the best Utah has seen in nearly twenty years. As most of us enjoy the surplus of fresh powder on skis or a snowboard, others are wondering: how will all this snow affect local waterways in a few months? Snowpack monitoring is one way hydrologists predict spring runoff and help prepare for flooding events.
Snowpack monitoring involves the collection of snow core samples. Currently the Salt Lake County Watershed collects samples from three sites in Big Cottonwood Canyon and three sites in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Site elevation ranges from roughly 8,800 to 10,300 feet and samples are taken from north aspects to ensure adequate snow depth and quality. Three snow core samples are collected from each site roughly every two weeks and used by hydrologists to calculate snow water equivalent (SWE). As described on the Central Wasatch Commission’s Environmental Dashboard, SWE is the amount of water (in inches) contained within the snowpack, or the amount of water that will be released when the snow melts.
Following sample collection, SWE data is entered into a model that reflects the total amount of water in the canyon. When synthesized alongside weather forecasts as the season progresses, this model helps hydrologists anticipate how quickly snow is expected to melt and potential effects of melting. For example, sudden warming paired with heavy rain can turn a large snow pack into a flooding event with potential to rework stream banks and cause damage to infrastructure.
Although heavy snow may pose a threat to infrastructure, increased spring runoff holds positive ecological implications. In recent years, low streamflow has created stress on stream systems, including riparian vegetation and wildlife that require steady circulation of nutrients to thrive. In short, a good snowpack is good news for stream health, especially in water deprived systems like ours. 90% of Salt Lake City’s water supply comes from snowpack, so heavy snow is beneficial to human health as well, translating to improved water quality and availability throughout the following year.
To track current snowpack data, water conditions, demand, and quality, visit our Environmental Dashboard.
Written by Ella Warnick.
Photo captured by Carly Lansche.