Scientists: The largest reservoirs in the US are moving in the right direction Story-level
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Parts of California are underwater, the Rocky Mountains are bracing for more snow, flood warnings are in place in Nevada and water is being released from some Arizona reservoirs to make room for expected abundant spring runoff.
All the moisture has helped alleviate dry conditions in many parts of the western US. Even the major reservoirs on the Colorado River are moving in the right direction.
But climate experts warn that favorable drought maps represent just a blink on the radar, as the long-term effects of stubborn drought linger.
Reservoir and groundwater storage levels, which take much longer to recover, remain at record lows. It could be more than a year before the additional moisture has an effect on the shoreline of Lake Mead, which straddles Arizona and Nevada. And water managers are unlikely to have enough leeway to turn back the clock on proposals to limit water use.
That’s because water release and hold operations for the massive reservoir and its upstream sibling, Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, are already scheduled for the year. The reservoirs are used to manage Colorado River water deliveries to 40 million people in seven US states and Mexico.
Still, Lake Powell could gain 45 feet (14 meters) as snow melts and reaches tributes and rivers over the next three months. Its increase will depend on soil moisture levels, future rainfall, temperatures and evaporative losses.
“We’re definitely headed in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go,” said Paul Miller, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Federal forecasters are scheduled Thursday to release predictions for temperature, precipitation and drought for the next three months, as well as the risk of spring flooding.
California has already been drenched by a fire hose of moisture from the Pacific Ocean that has caused flooding, mudslides and downed trees.
Ski resorts on the California-Nevada border are marking their snowiest winter stretch since 1971, when record-keeping began. In fact, the Sierra Nevada is on the verge of surpassing the second-highest snow total for an entire winter season, with at least two months to go.
In Arizona, forecasters warned that heavy rain was expected on top of snowpack packed into the mountains above the desert enclave of Sedona. One of the main streams running through the resort town was expected to reach flood stage and evacuations were ordered for some neighborhoods Wednesday night.
“We have far exceeded all kinds of averages and normals in the lower Colorado basin,” Miller said, unlike other western basins.
Forecasters say the highlight has been the Great Basin, which stretches from the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It has recorded more snow this season than the last two seasons combined. Joel Lisonbee of the National Integrated Drought Information System said that’s remarkable given that over the past decade, only two years, 2017 and 2019, had above-average snow cover.
Overall, the West has been drier than wet for more than 20 years, and many areas will still feel the pinch.
An emergency declaration in Oregon warns of increased risks of water shortages and wildfires in the central part of the state. Parts of central Utah, southeastern Colorado and eastern New Mexico are still dealing with extreme drought, while parts of Texas and the Midwest have become third.
Forecasters expect hot, dry weather in the coming weeks, meaning the drought will hold in some areas and gain control in others.
Tony Caligiuri, president of the Colorado Open Lands preservation group, said all the recent rainfall shouldn’t derail work to recharge groundwater supplies.
“The problem or danger with these wet year episodes is that they can reduce the sense of urgency to address long-term problems of water use and conservation,” he said.
The group is experimenting in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande. One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande and its reservoirs have been struggling due to poor snow cover, long-term drought, and constant demands. It dried up over the summer in Albuquerque and managers had no additional water to supplement the flows.
Colorado Open Lands reached an agreement with a farmer to remove his land and stop irritating the nearly 1,000 acres. Caligiuri said the idea is to draw a large part of the aquifer, allowing the savings to sustain other farms in the district so they no longer face the threat of having to shut down their wells.
“We’ve seen where we can have several good years like the San Luis Valley as far as rain or snow and then one dry year can wipe out a decade of progress,” he said. “So you can’t bury your head in the sand just because you’re having a good wet year.”
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner of Reno, Nevada contributed to this report.