Runoff/snowpack news: Water providers in the lower basin states are all smiles for a change

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From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

Parched New Mexico won’t see much of that water [ed. northern Rocky Mountain snowpack] directly. Most of it fell to the north of the watersheds that feed the San Juan and Rio Grande, New Mexico’s two largest rivers. But we will nevertheless benefit in important ways, [Estevan López, head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission] said, as the extra water from this year’s snowpack buys time to work on long-term problems in the Colorado Basin.

The problem for the past decade has been drought on the river system that supplies a significant amount of the water supplies used by seven Western states, including New Mexico. For us, the San Juan River, a tributary, supplies drinking water to Albuquerque and Santa Fe via the San Juan-Chama project. The San Juan also supplies water to meet the Navajo Nation’s water rights, as well as irrigating farms in the state’s northeastern corner.

The question lingering throughout the conference is how reliable that supply might be in the long run, for us as well as the six other U.S. states and Mexico that also rely on the Southwest’s largest river system. And if the Colorado gets less reliable – if, in the long run, it has less water to offer even as we keep growing and trying to use more of it – who will take the hit? Whose share of the limited resource will be reduced? A new federal study released in conjunction with the conference forecast that the Colorado could have 9 percent less water on average by 2050 as a result of climate change, with persistent drought growing more common…

And that is where the real benefit to New Mexico in the giant snowpack lies, López said. “This big snowpack in the basin has bought us some time to work on those issues.”

From The Denver Post (Analisa Romano):

Michael Lewis, who manages water data at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science Center in Lakewood, said cooler temperatures over the weekend have resulted in a steadily melting snowpack instead of a dramatic peak, as was expected last week. Snowpack is still about 239 percent of the average for this time of year, which means rivers could flow at higher levels into the first week of July or longer in some areas, Lewis said…

Meanwhile, restrictions on inner tubes and air mattresses will remain in place for the Colorado River until June 24, and the Yampa and Poudre rivers until early July, officials said. Because of less dramatic water flow this week, Clear Creek and Boulder Creek do not have any restrictions in place.

From the Associated Press (Cristina Silva):

The [Lower Basin states] can thank the heavy and, in some cases, unprecedented snowpack in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. The ripe June sun is sending snowmelt into the Colorado River, its tributaries and Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir located outside Las Vegas. “This is obviously really welcome, great news,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, CEO of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people. “It’s been a godsend.”

The water comes at a crucial time for the Southwest. After 10 years of receding water levels that threatened a regional water shortage, this year’s melting snows are expected to grow Lake Mead, the chief source of water for the three states and Mexico, by 40 feet or more. The jubilation in California, Arizona and Nevada is not a case of wishing neighbors ill, only the reality of nature’s polarizing impact in the water-poor West. Brutal, prolonged winters in the north produce robust, life-giving water flows in the south…

Roughly 96 percent of Mead’s water comes from melted snow in the upper Colorado River basin states: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. By November 2010, the water in the reservoir had fallen to 1,081 elevation feet, a historic low and a mere six feet above the point that would trigger a large reduction of Arizona and Nevada’s share of the Colorado River. If that trend had continued, Arizona and Nevada could have had to begin water rationing this year. That outlook changed during late winter as snowstorms blanketed Western mountains from the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada. By June, there was more cumulative snow than ever in the upper basin states that feed into the Colorado River, said Kevin Werner, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. As a result, Lake Mead is expected to grow to up to 1,126 feet by December. At full stage, the lake registers at more than 1,200 elevation feet. For public water utilities, the engorged river will buy officials more time to plan for the possibility of a future without Lake Mead, a nightmarish prospect across the Southwest. Some researchers believe long-term drought, climate change and an ever increasing demand for water could leave the lake dry by 2021.

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