LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Another week of freezing temperatures — but sunny skies — in the central Colorado Rockies won’t do much to help snowpack levels that feed the Colorado River.
The extended forecast shows the President’s Day weekend could bring in fresh snowfall to build snowpack levels that have been shrinking over recent weeks. Snowpack levels — that is, measurements of the Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) stored in the snow — stopped growing over the past few weeks.
As of Thursday, snowpack is 131% of normal, down nearly 15% over the past month.
A map on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation website updates daily as conditions change. Here’s a look at how SWE levels have grown and then fallen over the past three months:
- 102% on Dec. 27
- 117% on Dec. 29
- 139% on Jan. 9
- 153% on Jan. 19
- 142% on Feb. 3
- 131% on Feb. 16
The percentage reflects a comparison to “normal” SWE levels over the past 30 years — which includes the drought years since 2000. Experts say climate change has affected the entire Colorado River Basin. They say there’s about 20% less water in the basin today than there was before the drought began, and caution that one year above normal snowpack levels won’t make much difference. They also warn against putting too much stock in measurements before April 6 — generally regarded as when snowpack levels reach their peak each year.
The Bureau of Reclamation has just released a new 24-month study today showing expected levels at Lake Mead and other reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin.
Lake Mead’s surface is currently 1,047.51 above sea level. The report shows that the lake — which dropped about 20 feet over the past year — will begin to shrink steadily in March, reaching a low in November at 1,031.45 feet — a drop of about 16 more feet. A year after that, the forecast shows Lake Mead at 1,015.99 feet — another drop of more than 15 feet.
And despite river flow measured at 107% of average going into Lake Powell over the past four months, that reservoir hit a record low at 3,522.12 feet on Wednesday — below the previous low in April 2022 of 3,522.24 feet. The latest projections show Lake Powell dropping to 3,520.42 feet next month — about 20% full. Beyond that projections show the lake filling as the government protects the water level to ensure normal hydropower production through Glen Canyon Dam.
How can Lake Powell hit a new low with above-average river flows — all while Lake Mead continues to drop?
Conservationist John Weisheit said the government is “gaming the system.” And they have been for years.
Weisheit, co-founder of Living Rivers, said the 2007 interim guidelines that are currently used to manage reservoirs are simply being stretched. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation makes decisions about reservoir storage levels, and they have been on their heels as climate change chipped away at the Colorado River. Weisheit said a recent study showed five of the 10 U.S. counties hit hardest by climate change are in the Colorado River Basin — including Utah’s Grand County, where he lives in the town of Moab. Average temperature has increased 2.7 degrees since 2000, he said.
Now, after devastating dry conditions that led to the initial declaration of a water shortage in August 2021 — followed by a terrible year that pushed the drought to new extremes — river management seems beyond fixing. Weisheit said river flow was 52% of normal last year.
“We said this day was coming,” Weisheit said.
And Lake Powell will rebound a little bit this year, he acknowledged. But it will happen as other reservoirs upstream are drained.
Lake Mead’s decline isn’t the only sacrifice along the river, Weisheit said. Green Mountain and Blue Mesa reservoirs in Colorado, Flaming Gorge on the Wyoming-Utah line and Navajo Lake in northern New Mexico will feed water to Lake Powell.
In late December through January, wet weather fueled by “atmospheric rivers” led to optimism in the basin. But predictions of dry conditions from a third-consecutive La Niña weather system could still impact the Colorado River this year. On Thursday, the National Weather Service said there’s an 85% to 95% chance La Niña ends this spring.