This year’s record-breaking snowpack is pouring into the dried-out Salt Lake
Snowmelt is replenishing depleted ecosystems and flooding communities.
By Hannah Singleton HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
For two weeks, Utah resident Hilary Silberman has watched the muddy flood waters of Emigration Creek rush past her house, occasionally cresting over the wooden bridge in her backyard. Every morning, she steps onto her back deck to make sure the water hasn’t reached her house, and every night, she checks again before going to bed. “It’s on my mind all the time,” she said. In 28 years of living in Salt Lake County, she’s never seen the creek run so high for so long.
As this year’s huge snowpack — which is 270% above average — begins to melt, it’s easing drought conditions in much of the West. But it’s also flooding fields and towns, and Utah is not the only state feeling the impact. In Dolores, Colorado, for example, “a lot of houses have been flooding from runoff from the hill that borders the town,” said Ilana Newman, a Dolores resident. “The river also keeps rising, so that’s a potential risk.” Communities like Paonia, Colorado, and parts of northern New Mexico have flood advisories in effect, and many places are worried about roadway flooding and mudslides. Flood conditions are expected to peak in mid-May in many areas, but spring runoff will continue to raise stream flows and the long-term forecast really depends on weather.
Throughout Salt Lake County, flood-zone residents have lined their property with sandbags. Sugarhouse Park, in the center of town, has become a temporary holding pond for overflow from nearby reservoirs, and Salt Lake City Public Utilities has a team that monitor streams around the clock and watches for pinch points and debris buildup. But Utahns are welcoming one major impact: the replenishing of the parched Great Salt Lake. Nan Seymour, a local activist, called the snowpack a “gift,” one she hopes will spur water managers and politicians to prioritize the lake in the long term, too.
Currently, most of the snowpack from the western side of the Wasatch Range — 900-plus inches — is making its way to the Great Salt Lake, which has risen more than 4 feet since its low point in November 2022. “We do anticipate that (the Great Salt Lake) will likely rise another few feet,” said Laura Briefer, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities.
Water managers are sending as much of the abundance as they can to the Great Salt Lake. The Central Utah Water Conservancy District, which manages water in eight counties, including Salt Lake, and nine reservoirs across central Utah, started diverting over 50 million gallons a day to the lake on April 25.
“That is enough to supply 150 homes for a year for indoor and outdoor use,” said Jared Hansen, the Central Utah Project manager for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. “It’s not going to solve the problem by any means, but hopefully it alleviates it in some way.” Thanks to some out-of-the-box thinking, this water, which usually feeds into Utah Lake, a freshwater lake 50 miles south, is being temporarily rerouted through a series of pipelines and aqueducts into the Great Salt Lake. This diversion is likely to continue for a couple of weeks — possibly as long as a month and a half, said Hansen. “But once people need those pipelines to deliver water to the communities they serve, that’s what will shut us down.”
Experts caution against being overly optimistic, especially since 43% of the state is still “abnormally dry” and parts remain in drought. As temperatures rise and homeowners, farmers and property managers start irrigating their lawns, crops and golf courses, the amount of water arriving at the lake will decline. And at the time of this writing, the lake is still 6 feet below the level required to support a healthy ecosystem.
“I really hope people aren’t getting into the mindset that just because we had a great water year this year, all our problems are solved,” said Nate Blouin, Utah senator for District 13. “We still have to do the work.” Briefer said Salt Lake’s Department of Public Utilities will keep using tools it established prior to this snow year and asking the community and local industries to conserve water. “This year we have a time of plenty and we need to take advantage of these years,” she said. “We may see another drought year after this one, so it’s important to seize the moment and alleviate some of the pressure on Great Salt Lake.”
Hannah Singleton is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. She primarily covers outdoor sports, public lands and the environment, and holds a master’s degree in environmental studies. Her work appears in The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Forbes, SELF and other publications.