No return to normal: Low mountain snowpack reflects the West’s grim climate outlook
As historic levels of drought persist across the Mountain West, water officials in Northern Nevada are warning that peak fire conditions might appear sooner this year than in the past – and at least one rural reservoir is so dry it can’t provide water for irrigation.
As the wet season comes to an end, scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are warning that the dry winter across the Mountain West broke records for its meager mountain snowfall.
“January, February, and March this year added up to the lowest precipitation for those three months that we’ve ever seen at SNOTEL sites, going back to the early ‘80s,” said Jeff Anderson.
SNOTEL – short for snow telemetry – is the automated system that tracks how much water is stored in hard-to-reach areas like the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. That’s where Anderson, a hydrologist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, measures seasonal snowpack.
Anderson’s final report for the season shows snow levels between 46-66% of the median for this time of year across Nevada – and melting faster than in recent years, thanks to unusually warm weather. According to national data, parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona had less than three-quarters of their historical median snow levels.
“The conditions that we have here are not unlike other parts of the West,” Anderson said. “It was a below normal year.”
He says that’s partially because La Niña conditions over the Pacific Ocean created a stubborn ridge of high pressure that pushed winter storms away from much of the Mountain West
“The storms go somewhere, they don’t just dry up completely,” Anderson said. “And so I think the storm track was just a lot further north this year than what would have benefited us.”
According to a recent study, much of the world will enter a permanent state of drought in the 21st century – including the Mountain West. Since baseline climate models are changing, the report’s authors say the definitions of extreme weather need to be updated.
“Essentially, we need to stop thinking about returning to normal as a thing that is possible,” said Samantha Stevenson in a written statement. Stevenson studies climate modeling at the University of California, Santa Barbara and led the study.
But around Reno, at least, Bill Hauck with the Truckee Meadows Water Authority says residents will still have plenty of water in the next year.
“We’re going to have basically normal Truckee River flows through the summer months and past our peak demand season,” he said. “We’ll actually be able to continue providing our customers with the same reliable supply of high-quality drinking water we always do.”
Not every Nevada community is quite so lucky. The Rye Patch Reservoir, which supplies irrigation for farmers in rural Lovelock, Nevada, is too low to provide any water at all. And those in Nevada and surrounding states who rely on water from the Colorado River are also feeling the pinch. One of the system’s major reservoirs, Lake Powell, dropped to critically low levels in March.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno were recently awarded a grant to help establish a statewide network that will bring together groups that use water, utilities that provide it to cities and towns, and owners of water rights in the state.
Anne Nolin teaches at UNR and says Nevada Water will seek input from tribal communities, too.
“It includes them in a way that is about learning from them, rather than explaining from a science perspective to them,” she said.
Nolin hopes that by combining Indigenous knowledge with modern science, the network could address the problems that already exist in Nevada, which is the driest state in the country.
In the near term, Jeff Anderson with the USDA expects the poor snowpack to allow forests to dry out more quickly, raising the risk of large wildfires. Over the last several years, megafires have torn through parched California woodlands and choked the air with hazardous smoke. For example, the Caldor Fire last year burned more than 22,000 acres near Lake Tahoe, about an hour’s drive from downtown Reno.
“The forest is going to have for a longer period of time to dry out this summer,” Anderson said. “I think that should be, you know, a concern for us.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.