LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Snow is forecast every day this week in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, and snowpack levels have climbed to nearly 150% as warmer spring temperatures near.
It could be the winter we remember as one of the bright spots in a drought that defined the past two decades in the Colorado River Basin.
The Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) stored in snowpack of the Upper Colorado River Basin reached 146% on Monday. The increase pushed measurements in the Lower San Juan region to more than triple what’s considered a normal year. The Colorado Headwaters region — which should benefit from snowfall this week — remained at 127% of normal.
The peak of snowpack levels usually comes around April 1, the usual date when snowmelt begins to feed streams and rivers as they make their way down Colorado River tributaries, with the water eventually filling reservoirs that will sustain more than 40 million people.
Over the past year, water officials have said they intend to hold back water in Lake Powell as they prioritize keeping the lake high enough to generate power through Glen Canyon Dam — business as usual. The “Law of the River” — the 1922 Colorado River Compact — dictates that 7 million acre-feet of water are released from Lake Powell to meet commitments to Nevada, Arizona and California. Extra water that gets held back this year could help if a dry year comes in 2024.
Bottom line: Lake Mead won’t see any significant increase until power production at Glen Canyon Dam can happen at lower reservoir levels. Everything about the government’s decisions are currently directed at propping up Lake Powell to keep the electricity flowing.
The exceptional SWE levels this year might just be buying time before hard decisions that lie ahead.
A hint of that came last week when the Southern Nevada Water Authority said it was spending $1.4 million to study whether it needs to lower the intake level for the “third-straw” at Lake Mead.
Federal officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are expected to make announcements in August regarding changes to how they manage dams along the Colorado River. The bureau is studying plans to cut 2 to 4 million gallons of water use. The plans were presented at the end of January — one from California, and another one signed by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. There isn’t a plan that all seven states agree to — yet.
Conservationists and water officials agree — one good year won’t save us from the effects of climate change. Temperatures in the region have been about 2.5 degrees higher on average over the past 20 years, and that has meant a decrease of about 20% in river flows.
It would take multiple years to recover that water — and climate change isn’t a temporary phenomenon, experts say.