Snowpack Near Record Lows Spells Trouble for Western Water Supplies

Snowpack Near Record Lows Spells Trouble for Western Water Supplies

Ski resorts in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and parts of Colorado and California have been facing a winter drought. Fewer than half of the trails at Northstar at Lake Tahoe were open over the weekend. Credit: Steve Jurvetson/CC-BY-2.0

Scientists say snow seasons like the U.S. West is experiencing now will become more common as global temperatures rise, and economic costs will go up, as well.

Months of exceptionally warm weather and an early winter snow drought across big swaths of the West have left the snowpack at record-low levels in parts of the Central and Southern Rockies, raising concerns about water shortages and economic damage.

Drought spread across large parts of the Western United States this month, and storms that moved across the region in early January made up only a small part of the deficit. Runoff from melting snow is now projected to be less than 50 percent of average in key river basins in the central and southern Rockies.

Most of the region's annual water cycle starts as thick layers of mountain snow that accumulate during winter and melt slowly in spring. If the snows don't come, there's no water to fill the reservoirs.

A series of recent studies examines how vulnerable that snowpack is to rising temperatures, and how the economic costs from the declining snowpack could soar into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

As 2018 began, the snowpack was at record or near-record lows from Central and Southern Colorado across much of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. At many sites measured by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service on Jan. 1, the snowpack was less than 50 percent of average. Across Arizona and New Mexico, it was between 0 and 6 percent of average. 

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