Wave after wave of drenching storms are hitting California. Snowpack across much of the Rockies is well over 100 percent of the last 30 years’ average — in some places, over 200 percent. And yet all that water is still not enough to ease the decadeslong megadrought that has baked the western U.S., sending key reservoirs to record low levels.
“We probably need to have a series of years where the average headwaters snowpack is well north of 125 percent, probably closer to 150 percent of normal” to bring water levels at the country’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — up toward capacity, said John Tracy, director of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University. “I have seen multiple years where we’re above normal, that can happen. But something like that happening, say, 15 years in a row? I would not put my money on it.”
This year’s snow and rain have been a welcome sight across the West, but decades of water overuse and mismanagement, mixed with the effects of a changing climate, are unlikely to be fixed overnight. Experts say it is still too early to determine if this water year — a designation that runs from October through September — will end up as far above average as the early storms and snow suggest. Even if it does, that would have to happen again and again to fix what has been wrought. The diminishing flow of the Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million people, and the drastically low levels at Lakes Mead and Powell and across western watersheds are problems for the long haul.
“We can’t make water management decisions based on blips of weather,” said Chris Kuzdas, a senior water program manager with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. “Good water management is steady and plans for realistic trends, and the trends and signs are all going down.”
Dead pools on the horizon
The current drought in the western United States has lasted more than 20 years. At the time of this writing, though the storms have started to bring the numbers down, the U.S. Drought Monitor still says just under half the contiguous U.S. is in moderate drought; around 10 percent is in extreme drought.
Though those dry conditions extend across several key watersheds, the Colorado River is the most affected and well-known of the region’s water crises. It is the primary water source for people across seven states and the northern part of Mexico. The water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the artificial reservoirs that help serve that demand, have fallen to between 20 and 30 percent of their capacity.
Without significant intervention, both lakes could soon approach “dead pool” levels, where the water is so low that the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams that created them can no longer generate hydroelectric power. These levels could arrive within the next couple of years, if not sooner, and there’s no easy replacement for the water or power the river supplies.
“The core issues facing the Colorado River are the same — demands far exceed supply, [and] aridification is further reducing river flows,” Kuzdas told Grid. “Unless we change course and reduce use on a massive scale, we are looking at a major water supply and river collapse within the next couple of years.”
“A good start to the year”
According to the National Water and Climate Center, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, snowpack across the Rockies is well above average for this time of year; come spring, that snow will melt and feed rivers and streams. Nevada and Utah in particular have snowpack as high as 250 percent or more above average in some areas, while Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and elsewhere are also seeing strong starts to the year. For a few reasons, this isn’t quite as big a water bounty as it seems.
“While recent forecasts for the Upper Colorado River Basin are very encouraging, unfortunately a healthy snowpack doesn’t necessarily translate to an increase in flows into Lake Powell,” said Amy Haas, the executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. For example, she said the 2020 water year saw above-average snowpack but only about 50 percent of the average flow into Lake Powell. In 2021, average snowpack yielded only 30 percent of the average inflow.
The reason for the discrepancy can be traced back to the drought and climate change. Drier soil at higher elevations — a result of two decades of drought — will soak up more moisture as the snow melts in the spring, meaning less can reach tributaries and rivers. Further, the increased temperatures mean vegetation grows and blooms earlier in the year and survives later — and it will thirstily drink all of that snowpack.
Furthermore, snowpack in January doesn’t necessarily translate to snowpack in March, when it should be at its peak.
“It’s a really good start to the year,” Tracy said. “If you think about it as an 800-meter run — it’s like, ‘Wow, that first 150 meters, he really did well. Now what’s going to happen with the rest of the race?’”
Groundwater also in trouble
In California, where repeated “atmospheric river” storms washing ashore from over the Pacific have put much of the state under flood warnings and have killed at least 17 people, Tracy said the deluge will likely make a substantial difference in reservoir levels. But groundwater, which is crucial along with reservoir water for agriculture and other uses, has a long road to recovery.
“One thing you’ve got to learn about groundwater is if it takes you 40 years to screw it up, it’s going to take you 40 years to fix it,” he told Grid. Water moves much more slowly through the ground than in rivers and streams, so the decades of overusing California’s groundwater resources mean that even a flood year of Biblical proportions won’t replenish what has been lost. “You would just need so many years in a row of this to get groundwater back,” Tracy said.
In Arizona, where the Colorado River’s flow is of crucial importance, groundwater has taken something of a back seat in both public consciousness and public policy — though it provides more than 40 percent of the state’s water needs.
“As the Colorado River shrinks, Arizona’s reliance on groundwater will increase,” Kuzdas said. “However, over a large majority of the state, groundwater pumping is unlimited. It’s just a free-for-all.”
The state’s new governor, though, is trying to change that situation. Katie Hobbs was sworn in on Jan. 2 and issued an executive order a week later to establish the Governor’s Water Policy Council. It will be tasked with updating the Arizona Groundwater Management Act in an effort to address massive water shortfalls projected across the state.
Short-term weather, long-term negotiations
The promising start to the water year comes as the states that make up the century-old Colorado River Compact, which established water rights to an upper and lower basin of the watershed and to Mexico, continue to negotiate over the steep usage cuts 2 and 4 million acre-feet per year — enough to cover the vast Yellowstone National Park in a foot of water nearly twice over. But after a deadline came and went last summer, states have apparently made little progress, and the feds may step in with requirements soon.
If the above-average rain and snow continue, Tracy said, it will likely allow the states to push off the inevitable. “If the storms keep holding up, then [the reservoirs are] not going to head toward dead pool, and they’ll feel like they have another year to negotiate,” he said. But he and other experts agree that a few good weeks, or even a year, of better weather shouldn’t put off formation of a longer-term plan that can account for the new normal that climate change and overuse have created in the West.
“Water managers can’t get complacent about a few good storms or a single decent water year,” said Haas, of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. “Instead, we should be managing for a range of hydrologies with the understanding that we are likely facing an even hotter, drier climate resulting in additional stresses on the water supply.”
For the moment, forecasts suggest that the wet weather in California in particular will continue over the coming days, and snow will continue to fall in various parts of the Rockies. But relying on the vagaries of these sorts of storms in the face of decades of drought and a rapidly warming climate clearly won’t cure the water crisis.
“Weather doesn’t change the fundamental problem or the path out of that problem,” Kuzdas said. “Use less, a lot less, at a huge scale.”