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Rocky Mountain Snowpack Not A Good Sign For Las Vegas

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The Colorado River is fed by snows in the Rocky Mountains. Snows that have not materialized much this year.

Skiers rejoiced a bit earlier this week because the rain that fell in lower elevations turned to snow in the mountains.

And while skiers and snowboarders may love the snow on Mt. Charleston, that snow will do little to help Southern Nevada emerge from its two-decade-long drought.

The place it needs to snow to help Nevada is in the Rocky Mountains 600 miles to our northeast.

The thing is, the Rocky Mountains aren't getting a lot of snow this year.

So will we be in trouble next year if we have another blistering summer?

Luke Runyon covers the Colorado River for NPR member station KUNC in Northern Colorado. In a recent story about the snowpack, Runyon used the words climate scientists and hydrologists are using: bleak.

"Bleak, pathetic, measly - take your pick," he said, "And what that looks like on the ground kind of varies depending on where you are."

In the upper Colorado River basin, the snowpack is sitting at 58 percent of average he said, which means it is about half the amount of snow that is expected in a normal year.

And in the southern part of Colorado, some of the areas that are tested for snowpack are reporting their lowest snowpack ever recorded this time of year. It is similar in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. 

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"Out here in the West, the snow eventually melts and turns into our water supply," Runyon said, "So, a bad year here in the Rocky Mountains can have a ripple effect for the rest of the year and depending on how bad it is for a few years down the line."

Part of the blame for the lack of precipitation in the West has been placed on what climatologists have called the "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge," which is a ridge of high pressure that either sends storms north into northern Montana and Wyoming or forces them to nearly dissipate.

Runyon said when the snow does melt the flow into Lake Powell, which is the first big gathering spot for water along the Colorado River, is estimated to be 54 percent of average. 

If Lake Powell gets less water, then Lake Mead gets less water. The lakes are sister reservoirs that are managed together. If Lake Mead drops much further - perhaps seven to eight feet - the users of the Colorado River will be into "unchartered territory."

"You're looking at shortage declarations, potential cutbacks to water deliveries for Arizona, Nevada, California," he said, "I don't think that those states want to enter into that unchartered territory."

He said once Lake Mead hits that water shortage limit the Department of the Interior will step in and start setting rules, which most states and water management professionals don't want.

Runyon said Colorado River users have to come to an agreement on the Drought Contingency Plan to prevent the federal government from stepping in but that plan is not complete. 

However, that plan may not be needed for another year.

"Right now, the Bureau of Reclamation, which is the federal agency that manages Hoover Dam, they're not projecting that to happen this year," he said, "The earliest it could happen is in 2019." 

Guests

Luke Runyon, reporter, NPR member station KUNC

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