Finally, the reward came.
Foothills, canyons and peaks in the West have seen blankets of snow in recent days and months, an answer to years of wishes and prayers in drought-stricken states.
In parts of the central Sierra Nevada, almost 12 feet of snow fell in one week. In Utah, the Brighton Ski Resort website put it succinctly: “Better. Season. Ever.» Even Southern California got in on the action, with rare blizzard warnings last week.
The wet winter and abundant snowpack will ease drought concerns in some of the hardest-hit areas of the West come summer. But many places, including the Colorado Basin, have run up deficits so dramatic that a single season can’t prevent dire worries about water supplies.
Snowpack is the driving force for many western water supplies, providing agriculture, drinking water, and hydroelectric power, not to mention some winter recreation.
Robert Glennon, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona who specializes in water law and policy, said the year of heavy snowfall would only make a minimal dent in the Colorado basin’s multi-state crisis, perhaps lengthening the time frame before critical thresholds are reached in six months.
«If the states can’t agree to drastically change the amount of water they use, then, in all likelihood, the level at both Mead and Powell will drop below the point where either of those dams can generate hydroelectric power.» , said. , referring to Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the key reservoirs in the system. «We didn’t get into this problem in a year and we’re not going to get out of it in a year.»
Above-average snow cover covers almost all regions of the West. Major watersheds in drought-stricken states like California, Utah, and Nevada have snow accumulations of more than 150% above normal for this time of year.
“I’m on the second floor of my house and it’s like snow has fallen out the window,” said Theresa May Duggan, 72, a community organizer who lives in Tahoe Vista, California, near the shore of Lake Tahoe.
«So, we’ve been through some epic winters, but it went from epic to biblical a few weeks ago,» he added.
Paul Miller, a service coordination hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, said regions of the Colorado Basin are experiencing seasons that are among the highest snowpacks since record-keeping began, going back 60 years.
«It’s a welcome relief,» he said. «It doesn’t solve the problem of drought in the Colorado River Basin, but it is definitely beneficial.»
More about the drought in the West
Much of the West remains dry, but conditions are improving, according to maps of the National Integrated Information System on Droughtswhich classifies the severity of droughts on a scale from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought”.
Between heavy snow cover and a wet forecast for March, parts of California, Nevada and Utah could be written off the drought map this month. according to seasonal forecasts from the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Others are likely to see rating improvements.
In California, “this drought will be over for some parts of the state in some way. Most of the reservoirs are going to fill up,” said Jay Lund, deputy director of watershed science at the University of California, Davis. «We’re still likely to see some ecological issues in the forest and with endangered fish species for a bit longer, but I think we’re in for a much more normal year.»
But the promising snow season will not mask the long-term water problems of western states, which still require urgent and large-scale reductions in use.
In California, groundwater supplies are over-exploited every year, he said.
“In the southern part of the Central Valley, almost every year, more water is pumped than is recharged,” Lund said. “That is very much a long-term problem. It will take some long-term reductions in water demand.”
Concerns about overuse are even more urgent in the Colorado River Basin, where states continue to negotiate how to reduce water use as reservoir levels drop to worrisome levels. About 40 million people depend on the Colorado River’s water supply, which has diminished during the drought of the past 23 years and due to overuse.
Snow cover will provide a modest boost.
The Bureau of Reclamation forecasts inflows to Lake Powell from February through July to be 17% above average as snow melts and drains through the river system. Powell is one of the two largest and most important reservoirs in the Colorado River system. The elevation of the lake is projected to rise about 40 feet by the end of Julyoffice data suggest.
“Currently, Lake Powell is at 23% of average,” Miller said, referring to the reservoir’s capacity. If the forecast holds, he said, that number could rise, but not by much. «32% is not very good either, but we are going in the right direction.»
Seven states are negotiating steep cutoffs to keep the Colorado River flowing. The Recovery Office has indicated that it can impose its own cuts if the states cannot come to an agreement. If cutoffs are postponed, there is a risk of reaching a “dead pool”, when the flow is cut off to the lower regions because it cannot pass through the dams of a reservoir.
“We need substantial reductions from all user groups,” Glennon said, adding that America’s supply of leafy greens each winter depends on Arizona farmers who rely on water from the Colorado River. “If there is no water in the river, there is no salad. All those fields are left fallow.”
Near Tahoe, Duggan made it out of his home Wednesday afternoon under sunny skies. The workers whom she has called hers «snow angels» cleared a path from her porch to her street. One-story walls of snow line the walkway.
Any inconvenience is a small price to pay, he said.
“We are the California water bank. We feel the responsibility. Nobody really complains about the snow. We need it so much. It feeds and responds to California’s thirst. We’re happy to see it,» Duggan said.
Then, he paused, adding in his next breath, «It’s getting to be a bit much.»