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This Winter’s Snowpack A Story Of 'Haves And Have-Nots'

PRISM Climate Group
Oregon State University

In the West, some states are enjoying their best snowpack in years. And early too. In others, the new year has only brought more dry weather. That’ll mean significant water problems later in the year.

Let’s start with the “haves.”

Northern Colorado has been deluged with snow this winter. Storm after storm has delivered, leaving river basins for the South and North Platte well above average percent for the amount of precipitation received so far this water year, which begins Oct. 1.

Credit NRCS / USDA
The numbers on this map indicate current snow pack levels and their relation to the average. Red is bad. Green is good. Blue is best.

Staying on the eastern half of the Continental Divide, eastern Wyoming is snowy too. That’s a big improvement from one year ago when much of the state’s eastern slope was designated as being in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Further up the Divide, eastern Montana too has seen above average snowpack.

Jump across the Continental Divide and the “have-nots” are many.

California is coming off its driest year on record. The first part of January hasn’t delivered much snow, and water managers are worried there won’t be enough to go around for the state’s agricultural regions. The drought has reached such epic proportions that religious leaders are asking congregations to pray for rain.

A snowpack map of Oregon shows the dire situation in the Cascades. Hydrologists there are already warning of diminished streamflows, affecting the state’s fisheries, tourism-dependent businesses and hydroelectric power plants.

While Northern Colorado is sitting pretty, the southern half of the state could be in for some trouble if spring snow storms don’t roll through. There’s been little respite for residents of the Arkansas River valley near Rocky Ford. Dust storms were kicked up in high winds at Christmas-time outside La Junta.

Conditions aren’t nearly as bad in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, an agricultural powerhouse, but could devolve quickly. Farmers in the traditionally dry region are paying close attention.

All this spells bad news for the western half of the country. USDA forecasters announced this week that water supplies are projected to be tight the rest of 2014, affecting everyone from farmers to water managers to municipal leaders to fishermen.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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