It snowed hard all winter in the Rocky Mountains, and come spring that’s always been a sign that once that huge snowpack melts, the Colorado River will tumble mightily with a greater bounty of water to keep the Southwest viable.
The overall snowpack is now at 115 percent of average for this time of the year in the Rockies. So is it time to break out the red cups and toast an imminent reprieve in the drought, and the dire predictions of cutbacks in regional allotments for water supplies from the 1,450-mile-long Colorado?
Well, not so fast. “It may be a better than average snowpack, but depending on what the weather does it could not snow any more or get hot very quickly and evaporate the water instead of having it flow into the Colorado River basin,” said Mitch Basefsky, a spokesman for the Central Arizona Project, the agency that manages Colorado River flow into Pinal, Maricopa and Pima counties.
There are many other factors that will contribute to this winter’s snowpack impact on the Colorado River, said Bob Barrett, another spokesman for the CAP.
As Basefsky pointed out, the snow season in the Rockies lasts through April, so it will still be a number of weeks before we can really measure the effects of the overall snow melt from the winter season.
“The concern is that it’s been pretty mild the last month. We’ve had pretty good precipitation, but it was warm,” said Greg Smith, the senior hydrologist at the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
Smith said much of the debate about the state of the snowpack is rooted in the differences in the snowpack at different heights. According to Smith, places with lower elevation have seen very little snow this year.
“People who are used to seeing snow at this time of the year at those elevations are getting pretty nervous. But up high it’s pretty good. We’ve got some places that are over 150% of average,” he said.
The Green River basin area in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado has a significant snowpack, the third highest on record for this time of the year, said Smith. But while some areas are looking the effects of a good snow with a good runoff situation enhanced by of decent monsoon rains last year, Arizona is a different story.
“Arizona is kind of a disaster,” said Smith.
For most of the winter, many of the storms have been staying north of the state, and the snow sites in the Verde and Salt River basin are nearly completely bereft of snow. The snow that did stick in that area disappeared quickly. Since the area doesn’t see many more storms once it hits mid-March, there isn’t much more of a chance for a rebound, Smith said.
Since 2000, the Colorado River basin area has been experiencing the worst drought of the century. So far, Colorado River water users have not had to decrease the amount of water they’ve been receiving because of reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which were full when the drought began. Today they are about half full.
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water projects in the 17 western states, makes predictions about the state of water every two years. They’re currently projecting that less water will be released from Lake Powell and Lake Mead this year and perhaps next year as well if the levels in the lake are still low.
“Right now they’re looking at the potential for shortage in either 2015 or 2016,” said Basefsky. “A shortage is pretty significant for CAP because we have the junior priority for the Colorado River basin. We would forego importing about 20% of our water supply.”
That water that CAP is in danger of losing would be left on the river. This would cut down on the excess water that is used to recharge the Arizona Water Bank. The agricultural industry and farmers — the major users of Colorado water — would be the most affected by the shortage. Since they have a lower priority level than other water consumers such as municipal suppliers and tribal claimants, about 60 percent of the water supply that agriculture normally has access to could no longer be available to them, depending on decisions about how allotments might be affected.
But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be able to continue to farm, said Basefsky. They could go back to using ground water or lease water from a higher priority user.
“It’s very serious,” Basefsky said of the continuing drought and the looming cutbacks. “A shortage is going to be significantly serious. Our progress of building up a bank of stored CAP water would stop.”
The water bank was set up in order to take on excess CAP water. Excess water means water that a customer has a long-term contract for but hasn’t placed an order for it.