Image: Las Vegas
Gabriel Bouys  /  AFP - Getty Images
Las Vegas gets nearly 90 percent of its drinking water from Lake Mead, which had been shrinking over the last decade.
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updated 6/13/2011 4:52:21 PM ET 2011-06-13T20:52:21

Communities below the snow-capped mountains of the West are bracing against the swelling rivers and flooding that come with the spring thaw. In the drought-ravaged cities of the Southwest, however, the deluge is cause for celebration.

There will be more water for Nevada, California and Arizona this year, sparing them from having to take emergency measures, such as water rationing, for at least another three years.

The three states can thank the heavy and, in some cases, unprecedented snowpack in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. The ripe June sun is sending snowmelt into the Colorado River, its tributaries and Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir located outside Las Vegas.

"This is obviously really welcome, great news," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, CEO of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people. "It's been a godsend."

The water comes at a crucial time for the Southwest. After 10 years of receding water levels that threatened a regional water shortage, this year's melting snows are expected to grow Lake Mead, the chief source of water for the three states and Mexico, by 40 feet or more.

The jubilation in California, Arizona and Nevada is not a case of wishing neighbors ill, only the reality of nature's polarizing impact in the water-poor West. Brutal, prolonged winters in the north produce robust, life-giving water flows in the south.

That cycle had been disrupted for more than a decade as one dry winter after another emptied Lake Mead, which sits on the Nevada-Arizona border and was formed in 1935 after the construction of Hoover Dam. Mead and Lake Powell upstream are the major water storage facilities in the system.

Roughly 96 percent of Mead's water comes from melted snow in the upper Colorado River basin states: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.

By November 2010, the water in the reservoir had fallen to 1,081 elevation feet, a historic low and a mere six feet above the point that would trigger a large reduction of Arizona and Nevada's share of the Colorado River.

If that trend had continued, Arizona and Nevada could have had to begin water rationing this year.

That outlook changed during late winter as snowstorms blanketed Western mountains from the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada.

By June, there was more cumulative snow than ever recorded in the upper basin states that feed into the Colorado River, said Kevin Werner, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service's Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

As a result, Lake Mead is expected to grow to up to 1,126 feet by December. At full stage, the lake registers at more than 1,200 elevation feet.

For public water utilities, the engorged river will buy officials more time to plan for the possibility of a future without Lake Mead, a nightmarish prospect across the Southwest. Some researchers believe long-term drought, climate change and an ever increasing demand for water could leave the lake dry by 2021.

In California, water leaders are promoting conservation programs and exploring other water sources.

In Nevada, Las Vegas gets nearly 90 percent of its drinking water from the lake. Officials are seeking a permit to build a 285-mile-long pipeline project to import water from aquifers in northern Nevada and Utah. The project has encountered stiff opposition from conservationists and rural leaders against tapping northern groundwater to fuel more growth in southern Nevada.

Meanwhile, construction problems have stalled a $700-million effort to build a new pipe into Mead.

The huge snowmelt has somewhat eased some of the pressure driving both projects, said Scott Huntley, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "This is the first significant elevation in 10 years," he said. "It provides us a greater cushion to fall back on."

The good news has spread quickly.

In rural Arizona, the new water means farmers won't have to reduce agricultural acreage.

"It means we've dodged a bullet," said Kevin Rogers, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, the state's farming lobby. "That water is the lifeblood of the West."

At the Lake Mead National Recreation Area bordering Hoover Dam, park officials are preparing for new visitors and urging concessionaires to move their marinas, floating restaurants and boat rental stands to accommodate the transforming shore.

"Water has already started to rise a foot a week," said park spokesman Andrew Munoz. "We are looking at three good years of access to the water."

The National Park Service also is looking forward to replenishing its purse. Every 20-foot drop of water during the past decade has cost the agency roughly $6 million in renovations as roads and utilities were extended to match the receding shoreline.

"That's hundreds of thousands of dollars that they won't have to spend this year," Munoz said.

Gail Kaiser's family owns the Las Vegas Boat Harbor and Lake Mead Marina outside Las Vegas. For more than 10 years, the family has repeatedly released its anchors and moved the marinas to stay attached to the receding shoreline.

This year, however, they expect to move the marinas up at least five times through August to keep pace with the rising water.

"It is always a good thing to have more water," she said. "People go, 'Wow, they are getting water there. Let's go out and see what the lake is doing.'"

Boaters forced to confront muddy beaches and newly uncovered islands as they toured Lake Mead in recent years are also watching the rising water with delight.

Rick Brodeen has been boating on Lake Mead since 1972. His friends crashed into unmarked islands as the lake began to empty. The beaches became less popular for day trippers as more and more rocks emerged. It was dangerous and depressing, Brodeen said.

"I've been watching this water go down for years," he said. "To have the water going up is a lot better."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Snow meltdown threatens mountain West

  1. Closed captioning of: Snow meltdown threatens mountain West

    >>> we've been reporting this week on the severe flooding conditions along the missouri river . it turns out for a large area in the plains and the west, the worst may be yet to come because there is a lot of snow in the mountains that hasn't melted yet. one livee has given away in utah, and the levels are rising. anne thompson reports.

    >> reporter: from top to bottom, the wasatch mountains are still coffered in snow. a boon for skiers and snowbirds.

    >> last year, the season ended about the second week of june. this year, we're hoping to go to the 4th of july .

    >> this revives memories of 1983 when downtown salt lake city flooded.

    >> it's unprecedented. the green line is 1983 . this year pretty well eclimss everything we have seen historically.

    >> even though giant snowcaps are the only way to get to the site where he measured the depth of the snow and weighs it --

    >> it's so heavy here, it's bending the pole over, that's how much water is in the snowback.

    >> he finds a whopping 60% to 70% amount of water.

    >> the state is hoping for a four to six week rodeo, and we're hoping to stay on the horse.

    >> all the water goes around the great salt lake not once, not twice, but three times. the same story across the west. no packs are 00% to 700% above normal. there's moisture to the west, and there's climate change.

    >> yes, the air is warming, and water can hold more vapor when it no snows, and it was cold enough to snow all winter. that means more snow, and that's what we got.

    >> usually, the snow melts in 12 to 14 weeks, this year, it might have 4 to 6 weeks , pushing huge amounts of water into every state except arizona and new mexico. there is already flooding in montana, and utah's river rex routines are getting set for what is to come. as it prepares for life that could potentially become a destructive force of nature .

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