ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Parts of California are under water, the Rockies are preparing for more snow, warnings are in place in Nevada, and water is being released from some Arizona reservoirs to make room for a large spring runoff expected.
All the moisture has helped ease drought conditions in many parts of the western United States. Major reservoirs on the Colorado River are also heading in the right direction.
But climate experts warn that favorable drought maps are just a sweet spot on the radar as the long-term effects of a stubborn drought persist.
Storage levels of groundwater and reservoirs, which take much longer to recover, remain at historic lows. It could be more than a year before excess moisture takes its toll on the shoreline of Lake Mead, which straddles Arizona and Nevada. And water managers are unlikely to have enough wiggle room to backtrack on proposals to limit water use.
That’s because water release and retention operations for the massive reservoir and its upstream sibling — Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border — are already scheduled for the year. The reservoirs are used to handle Colorado River water deliveries to 40 million people in seven US states and Mexico.
However, Lake Powell could gain 45 feet (14 meters) as snow melts and makes its way into tributaries and rivers over the next three months. How much it will rise will depend on soil moisture levels, future rainfall, temperatures and evaporative losses.
“We’re definitely heading in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go,” said Paul Miller, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
Federal forecasters are scheduled Thursday to release forecasts for temperature, precipitation and drought over the next three months, as well as the risk of spring floods.
California has already been drenched in a fire hose of moisture from the Pacific Ocean causing flooding, landslides and downed trees.
Ski resorts on the California-Nevada border are experiencing their snowiest winter stretch since 1971, when logging began. In fact, the Sierra Nevada is on the verge of surpassing the second-highest snow total for an entire winter season, with at least two months to go.
In Arizona, forecasters warned that heavy rain was expected on snowpack in the mountains above the desert enclave of Sedona. A major stream flowing through the resort town was expected to reach flood stage and evacuations were ordered for some neighborhoods late Wednesday evening.
“We’ve pretty much gone through all kinds of averages and normals in the lower Colorado Basin,” Miller said, not unlike other western basins.
Meteorologists say the real showpiece was the Great Basin, which stretches from the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It has recorded more snow this season than the past two seasons combined. Joel Lisonbee, of the National Integrated Drought Information System, said it’s remarkable given that over the past decade, only two years — 2017 and 2019 — have had snow cover above the median.
Overall, the West has been drier than wet for more than 20 years, and many areas will still feel the consequences.
An emergency declaration in Oregon warns of heightened risks of water shortages and wildfires in the central part of the state. Pockets of central Utah, southeastern Colorado, and eastern New Mexico are still facing extreme drought, while parts of Texas and the Midwest have gotten drier.
Forecasters are expecting hot, dry weather in the coming weeks, meaning the drought will keep its foothold in some areas and tighten its grip elsewhere.
Tony Caligiuri, president of conservation group Colorado Open Lands, said all the recent rainfall shouldn’t derail work to recharge groundwater supplies.
“The problem or danger in these episodic wet year events is that it can lessen the sense of urgency to address the long-term issues of water use and conservation,” he said.
The group is experimenting in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande. One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande and its reservoirs have struggled with low snow cover, long-term drought, and constant demands. It dried up in Albuquerque during the summer and the managers did not have extra water to supplement the flows.
Colorado Open Lands has reached an agreement with a farmer to withdraw his land and stop irrigating the approximately 1,000 acres. Caligiuri said the idea is to take a big drop from the aquifer, which will allow the savings to support other farms in the district so they no longer face the threat of having to shut down their wells.
“We’ve seen where we can have more years as good as the San Luis Valley when it comes to rainfall or snowpack and then one year of drought can erase a decade of progress,” he said. “So you can’t stick your head in the sand just because you’re having a good wet year.”
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner of Reno, Nevada contributed to this report.