Snowpack

Luke Runyon / KUNC

High snowpack in the southern Rocky Mountains this winter will likely stave off a shortage declaration in the Colorado River watershed in 2020, relieving pressure on water managers attempting to navigate future scarcity.

New data from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation models show a lessened risk of a key Colorado River reservoir dropping far enough to trigger a first-ever shortage declaration. Snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin is at 138 percent of the long-term median, a level not seen in mid-March since 1997.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

Drought conditions in much of the southwestern United States have improved due to surges of moisture over the last few months, but national forecasters and climate experts are warning that it hasn't been enough to alleviate concerns about long-term water supplies around the region.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center and others held a briefing Thursday on the conditions in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Eric Hjermstad
Luke Runyon / KUNC

Each winter, anxious water managers, farmers and city leaders in the American Southwest turn their eyes toward the snowy peaks of the southern Rocky Mountains.

The piling snow is a massive frozen reservoir, and its depth and weight can foreshadow the year ahead. Millions of dollars are spent divining what a heavy or light snowpack means for the region's reservoirs, for its booming cities, for its arid farmland.

Luke Runyon / KUNC/LightHawk

Following one of the hottest and driest years on record, the Colorado River and its tributaries throughout the western U.S. are likely headed for another year of low water.

That’s according to an analysis by the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado Boulder. Researcher Jeff Lukas, who authored the briefing, says water managers throughout the Colorado River watershed should brace themselves for diminished streams and the decreasing likelihood of filling the reservoirs left depleted at the end of 2018.

The briefing relies on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Natural Resources Conservation Service among others.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

A first-of-its-kind cloud seeding program has started in the mountains of southern Wyoming and could soon be coming to Colorado.

Both states already seed clouds from land-based towers. The practice of spraying silver iodide or other chemicals into winter storm clouds to get them to drop more snow isn’t new, but using aircraft is.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

Early season snowfall in some parts of the Colorado River Basin have raised hopes of a drought recovery. But that optimism is likely premature.

In Colorado, higher than average snowfall in October and early November has allowed ski resorts to open early after a dismal start to last year’s season.

Luke Runyon / KUNC/LightHawk

Key reservoirs along the Colorado River are collectively at their lowest point at the start of a new water year since the last one filled nearly 40 years ago.

As of Oct. 1 reservoirs that store the Colorado River’s water are at just under 47 percent  of their capacity, according to recently released data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Put another way: Reservoirs that provide water to 40 million people and irrigate 5.5 million acres of farmland in the southwest are less than half full.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

A menace lurks beneath the snow high up in the southern Rocky Mountains.

At first glance it seems innocuous, another piece of a dynamic alpine ecosystem, certainly unable to cause the cascade of problems scientists say it could. How could something so simple undermine our water infrastructure, stress wildlife and lengthen the wildfire season all at once?

For most of the winter it stays hidden, buried under blankets of snow. Then, the days grow longer. The sun’s rays begin to melt the top layers, causing water to percolate through the snow and ice or evaporate, revealing the villain of this story.

Dust.

Casey Kuhn / KJZZ

The Salt River Project (SRP) puts on an annual water expo, and this year’s featured a pile of cold, wet, white powdery stuff on a hot sunny day in Tempe.

SRP Hydrologist Andrew Volkmer put snowshoes on two young boys while their guardian looked on.

This is the first time they’ve worn snow shoes, they said, and their guardian said someone might need to explain to them first what snow is.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

From the roof of Chuck McAfee’s adobe farmhouse in rural southwestern Colorado, you can see into three other states: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Mountain peaks are just barely visible above the horizon.

Even though this part of Montezuma County is considered the high desert, it’s common for these grass and sagebrush hills to be snow-covered into spring. This year they’re bare, and have been since last winter.

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