In this episode of Deeply Talks, Ian Evans, Water Deeply’s community editor, speaks with Tara Lohan, Water Deeply’s managing editor and John Fleck, director of water resources at the University of New Mexico, about the status of this year’s snowpack, what it can tell us about the water year to come and how that fits with long-term climate change trends.
The most significant reservoirs in the West are not stored behind concrete dams, but on top of mountains as snowpack. This year, however, snowpack has been alarmingly low throughout most of the West.
“If you look at the overall flow of the Colorado River – at Lake Powell, the main measurement point for the entire Colorado River Basin, it’s less than half of normal,” said Fleck.
That low flow impacts cities, agriculture and Western ecosystems for the rest of the year, if not longer. Already the Rio Grande River is so low that researchers are rescuing stranded fish by carrying them to wetter parts of the river. In California, instead of snow, the state experienced record-breaking wildfires and floods. Throughout most of the winter rainy season the state looked like it was headed for another devastating drought after only one year of relief.
“But then, March came along, and we actually got quite a lot of precipitation,” said Lohan. “Even with the snowpack tripling in March, it ended up being just over 50 percent of normal. So, it ended up being, not a catastrophic year, but definitely not a great year either. “
Fleck said that this was “maybe the sixth worst year that we’ve had in the last century” in the Colorado River basin. Coming in sixth might not seem too bad, but the bigger picture is that the number of droughts has dramatically increased, according Fleck. Climate change has created a “new normal” in the West, where the term “drought” may not even apply.
“It implies that the situation we’re in is abnormal. Clearly, it’s not,” said Fleck, “it’s a permanent state of affairs.”
To learn more about Western snowpack and this new normal for water, listen to the entire Deeply Talks episode. For advance notice of upcoming Deeply Talks and upcoming News Deeply events, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.