Heavy snowfalls from a number of atmospheric rivers brought somewhat brighter prospects for the beleaguered Colorado River.
According to the latest federal forecasts released last week, the snow that has fallen in recent weeks in the mountains that feed the river is not enough to fully contain the drop in water levels. Forecasters now expect Lake Mead to reach an elevation of around 1,027 feet this year, about 19 feet below its current level. That’s about 7 feet higher than the 2023 year-end increase in the bureau’s forecast last month.
As for Lake Powell, the reservoir, located on the Utah-Arizona border, is expected to reach 3,543 feet by 2023, up 16 feet from last month’s forecast and about 19 feet above current levels.
Still in short supply
While forecasts have improved due to snow cover, forecast levels mean Lake Mead will remain in deficit for at least the third year in a row.
“I think the big picture is that we’re dealing with a very long-term water scarcity in the Colorado River system,” said Steph McAfee, a government climatologist and professor at the University of Nevada at Reno. “A good year is good news. And I don’t want to belittle it. But that won’t solve the problem.”
The basin was greatly aided by a series of nine atmospheric rivers that swept across much of the West over a three-week period beginning a few days after Christmas. The amount of snow cover throughout the region is well above average, and in parts of California and Nevada it is currently approaching or exceeding the average at this point in the year by 200 percent.
For the Colorado River, most of the runoff will come from snowmelt in the western Rocky Mountains, where snow cover is currently 146 percent of the average.
Snow melt runoff from April to July is expected to increase the river to 117 percent of its 30-year average as that snow melts and runs downstream to Lake Powell, according to the Colorado Basin River Prediction Center’s latest forecast. This is a significant increase from the 79% average the center forecast for the river last month.
Forecasts are difficult
Now the question is whether this wet trend will continue — which is very difficult to predict for the upper Colorado River basin, McAfee said. One encouraging sign for the basin as a whole has been cooler-than-usual temperatures, which she says has helped prevent the snowpack from melting too soon.
“It is possible that we could get more storms. It is also possible that we failed,” she said. “When it comes to drought in the West, I appreciate all the good news. But we may just have to wait and see.”
Meanwhile, the seven states that take water from the Colorado River are struggling to come to an agreement on how to reduce the unprecedented amount of water used along the river starting this year. Federal officials say efforts are needed to prevent the country’s two largest reservoirs from collapsing to levels that could threaten hydroelectric power generation and water supply operations at the Hoover and Glenn Canyon dams.
Bureau of Reclamation officials have given states until the end of January to agree to a consensus proposal on how to make these cuts or risk the federal government taking the action on its own.
“Even if we had good enough years in a row to get Lake Mead back to where it was in 1984 and 1985, we still have to deal with this problem going forward,” McAfee said. “So we could figure out how to deal with it now.