ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Parts of California are inundated, the Rocky Mountains are gearing up for more snow, flood warnings are in place in Nevada and water is being discharged from some reservoirs in Arizona to make way for an expected abundant spring runoff.
All the moisture has helped alleviate dry conditions in many parts of the western US. Even the large reservoirs on the Colorado River are moving in the right direction.
But climate experts warn that the favorable drought maps are just a blip on the radar as the long-term effects of a persistent drought persist.
Groundwater storage levels and reservoirs – which take much longer to recover – remain at historic lows. It could take more than a year for the extra moisture to take effect on Lake Mead’s shoreline, which straddles Arizona and Nevada. And it is unlikely that water managers will have enough room to maneuver to turn back the clock with proposals to limit water use.
That’s because water release and retention 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 the Colorado River’s water supplies to 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico.
Still, Lake Powell could gain 14 meters over the next three months as the snow melts and makes its way into tributaries and rivers. How much it rises depends on soil moisture content, future precipitation, temperatures and evaporative losses.
“We’re definitely moving 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 due Thursday to roll out forecasts for temperature, precipitation and drought over the next three months, as well as the risk of spring flooding.
California has already been drenched in a fire hose of moisture from the Pacific Ocean, leading to flooding, landslides and fallen trees.
Ski resorts on the California-Nevada border mark their snowiest winter stretch since 1971, when record keeping began. In fact, the Sierra Nevada is poised to surpass the second-highest snow total for an entire winter season, with at least two months to go.
In Arizona, forecasters warned heavy rains were expected to fall on snow in the mountains above the desert enclave of Sedona. One of the main creeks running through the tourist town was expected to reach flooding stage and evacuation of some neighborhoods was ordered late Wednesday.
“We’ve pretty much blown past all kinds of averages and normals in the Lower Colorado Basin,” Miller said, similar to other western basins.
Forecasters say the real highlight has been the Great Basin, stretching from the Sierra Nevada to Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. More snow has fallen this season than in the past two seasons combined. Joel Lisonbee, of the National Integrated Drought Information System, said this is remarkable considering only two years in the past decade – 2017 and 2019 – had snow above the median.
Overall, the West has been more dry than wet for more than 20 years, and many areas will still feel the effects.
An Oregon emergency declaration warns of greater risks of water shortages and wildfires in the central part of the state. Pockets in central Utah, southeastern Colorado and eastern New Mexico are still experiencing extreme drought, while parts of Texas and the Midwest have become drier.
Forecasters expect warm, dry weather in the coming weeks, meaning the drought will take hold in some areas and tighten its grip elsewhere.
Tony Caligiuri, president of the conservation group Colorado Open Lands, said any recent precipitation should not derail work to replenish groundwater resources.
“The problem or danger of these periodic wet year events is that it can diminish the sense of urgency to address the long-term issues of water use and water conservation,” he said.
The group is experimenting in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, the upper reaches of the Rio Grande. One of North America’s longest rivers, the Rio Grande and its reservoirs have struggled due to meager snow cover, prolonged drought and steady demand. Albuquerque had a dry spell this summer, and managers had no extra water to replenish the streams.
Colorado Open Lands reached an agreement with a farmer to retire his land and stop irrigating the approximately 1,000 acres. Caligiuri said the idea is to take a big straw out of the aquifer, so the savings will be able to sustain other farms in the district so they no longer face the threat of having to plug their wells.
“We’ve seen where we can have several good years, like the San Luis Valley when it comes to rain or snow, and then one dry year can erase a decade of progress,” he said. “So you just can’t bury your head in the sand just because you’re having a good wet year.”
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.