Winters Are Key For Water Users In The West


Brennan Linsley/AP

A skier hikes up to the top of the Continental Divide, elevation 11,990 feet, a day after fresh snow covered the mountain peaks around Loveland Pass, Colo., in October of 2013.

Almost two decades of drought in the West has everyone praying for rain and, believe it or not: Snow.

Melted snow from the Rockies fills the Colorado River each year, which fills lakes Powell and Mead, the primary source of drinking water for Southern Nevada

Last year was a relatively mild year by most meteorological standards, but this year the Rockies have already received some snow.

"Generally, when we get snowfall here in the West, it’s a good thing,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst from the Western Resource Advocates.

Berggren said it is still early in the season to say exactly what the snowpack will be like. Meteorologists and climate scientists look at ocean temperatures, wind patterns and soil moisture to give their best guess about winter storms.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released its outlook for 2018 through 2019. The report said that although the weather phenomenon known as El Nino was expected it will be a weak El Nino, which won't bring as much moisture to the Southwest as other El Nino years.

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Berggren said the real problem isn't the amount of snow but the warming temperatures throughout the West.

“Even if you get the same amount of snowfall because of those increased temperatures that we’re seeing due to climate change you will see a reduction in overall water supply,” he said.

Berggren said higher temperatures means the snowpack, which works like a storage facility holding onto the water, is less efficient. The higher temperatures mean the snow evaporates and melts faster.

Berggren said if this year did turn out to be a snowy winter in the Rocky Mountains it wouldn't suddenly fill Lakes Mead and Powell with water.

“It is tricky to say that one big snowpack year would fix the system or fill Lake Powell or Mead," he said, "You really need several years to decades of above-average snowfall, above-average runoff and we’re just not likely to see that.”

He said the warming temperatures from climate change and the complicated way the river is distributed through the states make it unlikely that the reservoirs would be filled again with one large snowfall.

Water for the West is obviously the main reason people keep an eye on the snowpack, but winter weather is also an important economic factor for Utah and Colorado.

Both of those states get millions of dollars from the ski industry, which can be deeply impacted by a lack of snow.

Caitlin Furin is with SkiUtah, a consortium of ski resorts throughout Utah. 

Furin said there was less snow on the mountains last year but that didn't stop people from coming to ski.

“Even though it was a down year, people were still coming out to Utah because luckily here in Utah even a below average year is still a pretty good year for us,” she said.

And ski resorts aren't just offering skiing and snowboarding, they now offer other activities, which means they are not as reliant on powder days to get through the winter.


John Berggren, water policy analyst, Western Resource Advocates 
Caitlin Furin, communications director, SkiUtah 

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