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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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The Rockies are brimming with snow. The drought will persist anyway.

March 9, 2023 Updated Thu., March 9, 2023 at 7:52 p.m.

By Brian K Sullivan, Mark Chediak and Kim Chipman Washington Post

For the first time in years, there’s enough snow in the Rocky Mountains to fill – even possibly overflow – parts of the all-important Colorado River. That doesn’t mean the U.S. Southwest’s historic drought is behind it.

Not even close.

Above-normal precipitation there in recent months – with another storm on its way later this week – hasn’t changed the stark, underlying reality. Even with snow in the mountain range that feeds the country’s fifth largest river now averaging 125% of normal levels, once that snow melts, the over-allocated river will still run dry before reaching its natural outlet into the Gulf of California.

In fact, the basin will need higher-than-normal snows every single winter – forever – if the region ever hopes to fully meet demands on the river, from spinning hydroelectric turbines at pre-drought levels to serving the region’s growing population and agricultural needs. None of that will be possible without a dramatic and permanent change in water usage.

The main reason melting snow won’t change the river’s status quo is its reservoirs are already at such a deficit. Water elevations at both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two biggest hydropower systems on the Colorado, are at historic lows, meaning their dams are producing less power. The lakes were designed to hold four times the normal inflow from the Colorado, so it will take more than just one good year to replenish them completely, said Paul Miller, a service coordination hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City.

“Lake Powell is going to rise but it isn’t going to be anywhere close to full,” Miller said. “It took a long time to get this empty and it is going to take a long time to fill back up.”

The region’s drought, the worst in 1,200 years, further complicates the picture because the dry land and parched plants will just soak up some of the runoff from mountain snows before it reaches the river, said Clayton Palmer, an environmental specialist at the Western Area Power Administration, which markets and distributes power from federal hydroelectric power plants across the West. It’s a similar story to what’s happening in California, where the historic snowfalls this winter atop the Sierra Nevada mountains are expected to make just a modest dent in the yearslong drought that desiccated the state.

“There is a lot more snow, but because of climate change, it doesn’t mean there is a lot more runoff,” Palmer said.

The low water levels at Lake Powell have resulted in the release of warm water into the Grand Canyon, which is allowing invasive fish to threaten endangered species there. To address this issue, the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency responsible for managing the dams on the Colorado, has proposed releasing colder water from pipes that are deeper in the lake. Those deeper pipes don’t turn the turbines to generate electric power, which could cut hydropower production from the Glen Canyon Dam by as much as 50%, Palmer said. The dam provides enough power for about 300,000 homes and businesses.

The Western U.S.’s wetter winter was due to a shift in weather patterns across the Pacific Ocean that brought rains and snow, Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s Miller said. In addition, a large high-pressure system that grew in winters past, keeping the region dry, didn’t materialize this year, leaving the door open for passing storms. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if the rain and snow will continue next winter. That’s why many farmers and residents agree the only long-term solution is for policymakers to stop treating the drought as a temporary problem and enact change.

The soggy season “may buy us a one-year reprieve of major disaster – and we appreciate any time that we have to find a solution – but the problem isn’t going to disappear,” said Larry Cox, a California farmer.

All seven Colorado River Basin states – California, Nevada and Arizona in the Lower Basin, and Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico in the Upper Basin – are trying to decide how to cut water use. They’re hoping to reach an agreement themselves and avoid the federal government mandating cuts for them. California and Arizona, where most of the basin’s 40 million people live, have been at odds on a decision but are getting closer.

Farmers like Cox – whose operations include Southern California’s Imperial Valley and neighboring Yuma, Arizona – say they need clarity on how the government will ultimately conserve between 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, a lifeline for farms in the region. Cox and other producers with so-called senior water rights are bracing for potentially steep cuts as officials look to reduce river dependence.

Even without formal reductions, Cox last year said he had to sacrifice forage crops used to feed livestock in order to ensure enough water would be available for his lettuce, onions and other vegetables.

“They are pretty much coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, we want to rent one of your kidneys,’” Cox said in August when first asked about water conservation plans. “It will be painful but hopefully you’ll heal up OK.”

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