SALT LAKE CITY — With foothills glowing in Irish-like green and water flowing into reservoirs, it’s hard to believe Utah has a desert climate.
That’s thanks to above-average and even record-setting paces in rainfall this water year, which unlike a calendar year, runs from the start of October through the end of September each year.
The precipitation totals have also been noticed by those preparing for any potential flooding as runoff from snowpack in the mountains also merges into the rain total.
“It’s been a stellar year, there’s absolutely no question, and it isn’t just in Utah — it’s around the entire West,” said KSL meteorologist Kevin Eubank. “To see the droughts go from extreme in California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, and now to have that completely gone across the region, is a pretty phenomenal turnaround in a short amount of time.”
As consistent rain has impacted Utah, so has curiosity. Has Utah ever seen this much rain before? Actually, it has — although that's not to say the rainfall has been normal this year. And is there any correlation in Utah’s previous rain totals that meteorologists use to anticipate weather?
The wettest years on record
Heading into this weekend, Salt Lake City has received 13.04 inches of rain since October 1, KSL meteorologists said. That’s not only 5.11 inches ahead of this same point last year, it’s several inches ahead of the normal average of 9.4 inches by this point. If Salt Lake City were to remain on that trend for the rest of the water year, it would threaten the record of 25.15 inches set during the 1981-82 water year.
At the Bountiful bench, rain totals have already reached 25.57 inches this water year. The record is 43.66 set in 1983, a year most remembered by the flooding throughout the state, and the State Street river in downtown Salt Lake City.
In Logan, the record is 32.77 inches in a water year set from Oct. 1985 through Sept. 1986, according to Martin Schroeder, a staff meteorologist at the USU Climate Center. However, as of April 12, the 2016-17 water year total is 22.64 inches since Oct. 1, 2016 — 3.27 inches ahead of where the 1986-87 total was in April.
It’s equally impressive when considering the previous water year ended on Sept. 30, 2016, with 22.06 inches. The current total is also more than 6 inches away from reaching a spot in the top five in rainfall total for a year.
Other quadrants across the state are at similar rates. In southern Utah, St. George received 7.22 inches from October through March. If that pace holds, it would end up close to the record of 15.77 inches set in 1931-32. In Cedar City, 7.13 inches of rain has fallen since Oct. 1. The record for that area is 16.94 inches from the 1946-47 water year.
Hanksville, which has a record of 11.22 inches set in 2015, currently doesn’t fall into the record-breaking range, but the area typically receives rain during the summer. Of course, it’s not as easy to sustain, Eubank said. Often Utah’s weather balances out.
The rainiest days
On May 3, 1901, Salt Lake City officially received 2.64 inches of rain. That remains an all-time record in city history. Even then, the rain total was noticeable and the talk of the state. Rain throughout the area led the evening edition of the Deseret News that day.
“The copious downpour has continued all day, and the cheerful assurance is given by Mr. Murdock of the weather bureau that the inverted fountain will continue to play far into tonight,” according to a report from Deseret News that afternoon. “This is the storm that was scheduled to arrive on the 1st, but it was belated one day. It seemed to have stopped to take on more water. … It has raised the jubilant spirits of the farmers, who have watched the surface of their farms become encrusted. But it has also raised the ire of the prim housewives who spent all last week in cleaning their homes. … if some cheerful philosopher had essayed to point out to her some advantages of the rain, he would likely have been stabbed with an umbrella.”
The paper noted northern Utah was hit severely by the rainstorm and records were falling at the Utah Weather Bureau. Short reports from Mount Pleasant, Ogden and Juab County mirrored that in Salt Lake City. However, downed telegraph lines cut off any reports from southern Utah that day.
That daily record hasn’t been broken since.
One noticeable trend with the rainfall is that there is no trend when it comes to rain in Utah. Of the wettest days on record for Salt Lake City, each came in different years at different times of the year. On March 23, as a part of this year’s rain year, the city received the sixth-most amount of rain in one day at 1.97 inches, with the earliest time in a water year for the top 10 record rainfall dates. As such, it was the rainiest March day in Salt Lake City history.
However, only one of the top 10 wettest days occurred during one of the current top 10 wettest years on record. Even with the daily record set on May 3, 1901, that year didn’t finish in the top 10.
“It rarely correlates that way,” Eubank said, about the connection of daily rain total records to yearly records. Instead, it’s multiple storms just outside the top 10 in a record daily total combined that leads to record yearly totals.
“When you see consistency, we have had a consistent run of incredible amounts of storm totals (this year),” Eubank added. “When you’re getting over an inch in Utah — we’re the second-driest state in the country, we’re a desert. We don’t get 1-inch storms very often. And when you start seeing a couple in one month and a couple more over a quarter, that’s a lot of rain coming in a big hurry. … “Now (there) are thoughts and what we’re thinking, ‘is that going to continue all the way through May? What’s the summer going to be like?’ You ask those questions because now you’ve seen a pattern come through the fall, come through the winter, come now through spring. Is it going to continue? And if you go back in history, the answer is yes.”
Concern of high rainfall
Unlike 1983, where Salt Lake City and other areas of Utah experienced major flooding, most of the water in Utah has a place to go in the Great Salt Lake, which has shrunk over the years. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be flooding at all this year.
Eubank said a bigger concern than flooding this year is making sure the rain is controlled properly.
“We have a lot of capacity, we’ve got a lot of dry reservoirs, we’ve got a lot of places we can put that water, but putting the water isn’t the problem,” he said. “We want to manage the water and that’s a big difference. If you lose control or you get too many reservoirs that are at capacity and they start to overflow, you’re not able to manage and distribute the water.”
Other problems come from soil moisture content, Eubank added. In lower areas, this may lead to flooding in basements. In higher areas, this may lead to movement such as landslides.
When does it usually rain in Utah?
History doesn’t provide an idea if and when a record-breaking year will come. However, it does give an indication when to expect rain. From 1981 through 2010, various parts of Utah have different periods of time where rain is expected.
“There isn’t a single time where you get the most amount of rain here in Utah,” Eubank said. “There is actually several that are broken up across the state.”
Some are major outliers. For example, Cedar City was the only town in the entire state to have July as its wettest month on average during that time frame. That comes during the summer, where southern Utah is much more likely to accumulate rain in the state during the region’s monsoon season.
In spring, western and northern Utah accumulates most of its rain — especially in the populated areas around Provo, Salt Lake City and north from there. Fall has been the wettest time of the year on average for eastern Utah. Winter has also been a wet period of time for the surrounding Salt Lake area and northern Utah, as well as southern Utah in areas around St. George.
It’s always possible that even a wet winter and spring won’t equate to a wet summer. It’s also possible that history is irrelevant because a storm system could come through Utah at any time.
As Eubank says, "(Utah weather) always seems to balance out."
Contributing: KSL Weather