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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Researchers anticipate continued reprieve from drought for southwestern US

Although the 2024 water year has not been as dramatic as the year prior, researchers say the snowmelt forecast paints a positive picture for many water reserves in the southwestern U.S.

(CN) — The glass is half-full for water users across the southwestern U.S., according to an analysis of the 2024 water year presented by researchers at the Western Water Assessment on Monday.

The Western Water Assessment is an applied research collaboration between the University of Wyoming, the University of Utah and the University of Colorado Boulder focused on understanding how climate variability and climate change impact regional water resources.

“Throughout most of the region, we are seeing a majority of basins with above-average seasonal streamflow forecasts,” said Seth Arens, a Salt Lake City-based research integration specialist.

“If there had been one more year of drought conditions, the water levels in Lake Powell would have gotten dangerously low,” he added of the Colorado River reservoir in Arizona and Utah.

Following a dry November and December in 2023, the intermountain region saw significant amounts of precipitation and snowpack throughout the beginning of 2024.

This year, above average snow fell along northwest Colorado and the Front Range, as well as in north and central Utah and southern Wyoming. At the same time, northeast Wyoming experienced such dry conditions it fell into drought.

Southwest Colorado and eastern Utah have also been drier than average in 2024.

For much of the last two decades, the region plunged into a megadrought.

Then, 2023 brought the third-highest regional snow-water equivalent recorded in the last three decades.

 As a result, much of the southwest emerged from drought conditions last year, with the vital water reserve Lake Powell filling 65 feet, while Lake Mead rose 30 feet.

But many consider 2023 to be a fluke, not only because the region is aridifying, but also because it was a La Niña year, where precipitation usually concentrates the Pacific Northwest.

“Sometimes after we have really big water years, the following year can be a let down, but overall 2024 wasn’t really a disappointment,” Arens said. “It wasn’t a huge water year like 2023 ended up being, but it was a decent water year throughout the region.”

Peak snowpack measured in March marked record amounts of snowpack in southeastern Colorado. As of May 1, snowpack had started melting throughout the Rockies, with northern Wyoming snowpack melting off faster, driven by below-average precipitation and higher-than-average temperatures.

The patterns are relatively typical of an El Niño year.

The high amounts of precipitation in 2023 also maintained soil moisture, driving an efficient amount of snowmelt into streams this year.

Researchers anticipate Lake Powell receiving more than 5 million acre-feet of water this year, filling the important water reservoir to about 40% of capacity.

Still, Arens estimated the West would need six or seven more record-high years in a row to fill both Lakes Powell and Mead and completely ease regional water woes.

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Categories / Environment, Regional, Science

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