This group was the “food base” team from the U.S. Geological Survey, led by Ted Kennedy and Jeff Muehlbauer. They had started their research trip at Lees Ferry, 87 miles upstream; they had already been on the river more than a week, and they looked it. Short-timers in the Grand Canyon, like me, wear quick-dry clothes and wide-brimmed hats only days or hours removed from an outfitter’s store in Flagstaff, Arizona. Long-termers like river guides and the USGS crew look like Bedouin nomads, with long-sleeved baggy clothes, bandannas, and a miscellany of cloths meant to protect every inch of skin from the sun — yet nevertheless with vivid sunburns, chapped and split lips, and a full-body coating of grime. Almost as soon as I got there, the ecologists wrapped up their work, packed their nets, buckets, tweezers, and other gear, and led me to their home: a flotilla of enormous motorized rubber rafts that held a mini-house of living essentials and a mini-laboratory of scientific essentials, all tightly packed and strapped to get through the rapids of the Grand Canyon.
Arizonans enjoyed beautiful, warm and sunny days in January, with only 0.59 inch of rain. Temperatures were 10 to 15 degrees above normal on several days.
The entire Southwest has experienced one of the warmest, driest winters on record. That’s great for golfing, but unsettling with the unprecedented lack of snowpack runoff in the Colorado River.
Forecasts call for continued dry weather into the fast-approaching spring season…
Based on current measurements in the upper basin of the Colorado River where most of the water is generated, there is a very real possibility that the snow-water equivalent is tracking lower than 2002, which was the lowest year in recorded history.
“We do know that the runoff is not linear to what the snow-water equivalent is showing, but it is pretty alarming that we are tracking at this point in 2002, or actually a little bit below 2002,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources.
The Bureau of Reclamation has declared that there is almost no chance of a shortfall in water delivered from Lake Mead next year. But there is certainly a chance that the forecast may change, Buschatzke said…
They need to address what is happening with the hydrology and the increasing risks of not just short-term impacts on Lake Mead, but potentially going into a shortage by 2019, Bushatzke said.
“If we can’t conserve enough water in Lake Mead to make up the difference, that will be a high bar to achieve between mid-April and the end of July, which would be the time period in which we’d have to do that conservation,” the ADWR director said.
As water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop, the potential for restrictions on water use in 2019 rise, but not for all Colorado River water users.
Under the 2007 drought plan guidelines Arizona adopted, Central Arizona Project will take the full hit for whatever that reduction is, said Mark Clark, Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District manager.
CAP’s hit, Clark said, is about 349,000 acre-feet of water.
“The local folk here along the river really won’t see any change due to a shortage declaration at a tier one level,” Clark explained.
In August, Bureau of Reclamation releases its 24-month study and projects out to January of 2019 whether or not Lake Mead is going to be at an elevation of less than 1,075 feet, Clark said.
“If Lake Mead is going to be at less than an elevation of 1,075 feet, a tier one shortage would be declared,” Clark said. “If it got below 1,050 feet — and the likelihood of that is pretty remote — a tier two shortage would be declared. But the likelihood of a tier one shortage declaration is pretty realistic right now.”
Arizona Department of Water Resources recently reported the entire Southwest has experienced one of the warmest, driest winters on record; snowpack in the mountain regions, which provide runoff into reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead may be at record lows…
For the past few years, the state has participated in negotiations on an updated plan known as the Drought Contingency Plan — which has not yet been signed — that would require states like California and Nevada to make earlier and deeper cuts to protect Lake Mead’s current water level, as well as an enhanced plan known as Drought Contingency Plan Plus, signed in 2017, an Arizona-based plan to help stabilize Lake Mead Water levels.
“DCP plus actually calls for more reductions before a shortage is actually declared, so that we can try and stay out of shortage, Clark said. “We were hopeful DCP was going to be signed last year, but the wheels came off the tracts a little bit and it wound up not getting signed. In fact, they’re getting further apart now than they were last year.”
Clark believes water entities, including MVIDD, will make voluntary cutbacks this year to try and keep water in Lake Mead.
“The problem with these types of voluntary programs has always been, [how do we do the accounting?],” Clark said. “If we volunteer to put water behind the dam, we don’t want to do it then have somebody else down the river takes it because we didn’t use it. We want to be sure that if we volunteer to not use water it stays behind the dam and doesn’t get used by somebody else.”
According to data taken from the NRCS, snowpack in Grand County currently sits at 102.5 percent of average. The NRCS uses a 30-year average to calculate percentage totals. Currently averages are based on snowpack figures from 1980 through 2010. In 2020 the NRCS will shift their data set and will begin using the years 1990 through 2020 as their data set for determining 30-year averages.
Those figures may come as a surprise to many residents of Middle Park who have seen local weather patterns over the past few months including seemingly below average snowfall. Vane Fulton, who works for the NRCS out of the Routt County offices, said he understands if the numbers confuse people but he is not surprised to see the current snowpack for Grand County.
“These numbers don’t surprise me,” Fulton said. “But anecdotally we don’t have low elevation snow. The SNOTEL sites are all pretty high in elevation. We don’t really track snowpack at lower elevations.”
Fulton said he recently accompanied Mark Volt, an NRCS official based out of the Kremmling office, on a series of “ground truth” snowpack measurements, wherein officials hike to predetermined locations to physically measure the snowpack. Most of the snowpack data information provided by the NRCS is taken from snowfall telemetry sites that record and log data remotely.
Volt was not available for comment Thursday morning but Fulton said that the figures found by conducting on-the-ground snow surveys confirmed the range of figures showing up on the SNOTEL data registers.
Basin-wide the snowpack for the upper Colorado River currently stands at 84 percent of average. That figure includes snowpack data from throughout north western Colorado including the Independence Pass area near Aspen and points further west as the Grand Mesa.
As the world celebrates the achievements of athletes gliding over, down and across snow, I’ve been reflecting on what I see in the mountains and for the future of these very Games. And for good reason. A team of researchers led by scientists at the University of Waterloo has found that if global emissions of greenhouse gases are not significantly reduced, only eight of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to reliably do so again by the end of this century.
Closer to home, the snowpack in the Sierra is at just 14 percent of the historical average. I never imagined I would see this in the middle of February.
But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The past three years were the hottest ever measured since record-keeping began in 1880, with 2016 ranking No. 1, followed by 2015 and 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Scientists are warning us that the winter is becoming shorter. First freezes are starting later. So when I look at my children, I am even more convinced that we must take immediate and aggressive action on climate if we want their generation to learn these sports and enjoy winters in the mountains. More important, we must act quickly to preserve the culture and economies that depend on winter and snow.
A report to be released this month by the group Protect Our Winters, which I founded, shows that tens of thousands of jobs are at stake in mountain towns as our climate warms. In total, the 191,000 jobs supported by snow sports in the 2015-16 winter season generated $6.9 billion in wages, while adding $11.3 billion in economic value to the national economy.