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The West just got blanketed in snow, but its water problems aren't over

Many places, including the crucial Colorado Basin, have racked up such dramatic water deficits that a single snow season can’t forestall dire supply concerns. 
A vehicle which skidded off the snowy roadway into a small pond near Green Valley, Calif., on Feb. 25, 2023.
A vehicle that skidded off the snowy roadway into a small pond near Green Valley, Calif., on Feb. 25.Mario Tama / Getty Images

Finally, the bounty arrived. 

Hillsides, canyons and peaks in the West have seen blankets of snowfall in recent days and months, an answer to years of wishes and prayers in drought-stricken states. 

In parts of the central Sierra Nevada, nearly 12 feet of snow fell in a week’s time. In Utah, the Brighton ski resort website put it succinctly: “Best. Season. Ever.” Even Southern California got in on the action, with rare blizzard warnings last week. 

The wet winter and the hearty snowpack will ease drought concerns in some of the hardest-hit areas of the West when summer comes. But many places, including the Colorado Basin, have racked up such dramatic deficits that a single season can’t forestall the dire water supply concerns. 

Snowpack is the driving force in many Western water supplies, providing for agriculture, drinking water and hydropower, not to mention some winter recreation. 

Robert Glennon, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona who specializes in water law and policy, said the strong snow year would only make a minimal dent in the Colorado Basin’s multistate crisis, perhaps lengthening the period of time before critical thresholds are reached by six months. 

“If the states can’t agree to change rather dramatically how much water they’re using, then in all likelihood, the level in both Mead and Powell will drop below the point where either of those dams can generate hydroelectric power,” he said, referring to Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the system’s key reservoirs. “We didn’t get into this problem in one year and we’re not going to get out of it in one year.”

Above-average snowpack covers almost every region of the West. Major watersheds in drought-stricken states such as California, Utah and Nevada boast snowpacks more than 150% above normal for this time of the year

“I’m on the second story of my house and it’s like the snow is right out the window,” said Theresa May Duggan, 72, a community organizer who lives Tahoe Vista, California, near the edge of Lake Tahoe. 

“So, we’ve been through some epic winters, but it went from epic to biblical a few weeks ago,” she added.

Paul Miller, a service coordination hydrologist for the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, said the Colorado Basin regions are having seasons that are among the top snowpack amounts since records started being kept, which goes back as much as 60 years.

“It’s a welcome relief,” he said. “It doesn’t solve the drought problem in the Colorado River Basin, but it’s definitely beneficial.” 

Much of the West remains in drought but conditions are improving, according to maps from the National Integrated Drought Information System, which rates the severity of droughts on a scale of “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought.”   

Between the strong snowpack and a wet forecast for March, some parts of California, Nevada and Utah could be removed from the drought map this month, according to seasonal outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. Others are likely to see rating upgrades. 

In California, “this drought will be over for some parts of the state in some ways. The reservoirs are mostly going to fill,” said Jay Lund, the vice director of watershed sciences at the University of California, Davis. “We’re still likely to see some ecological problems in the forest and with endangered fish species for a bit longer, but I think we’re into a much more normal year.”

But the promising snow season won’t paper over Western states’ long-term water problems, which still require urgent, large-scale reductions in use. 

In California, groundwater supplies are overdrafted each year, he said. 

“In the southern part of the Central Valley, almost every year, they’re pumping more water than is recharged,” Lund said. “That’s very much a long-term problem. It will take some long-term reductions in water demand.”

Overuse concerns are even more urgent in the Colorado River Basin, where states continue to negotiate over how to cut water use as reservoir levels drop to concerning levels. About 40 million people depend on the Colorado River’s water supply, which has diminished during drought over the last 23 years and because of overuse.

The snowpack will provide a modest boost. 

The Bureau of Reclamation forecasts that inflows into Lake Powell from February through July will be about 17% above average as snow melts and drains through the river system. Powell is one of the two largest and most important reservoirs in the Colorado River system. The lake’s elevation is projected to rise by about 40 feet by the end of July, the bureau’s data suggests. 

“Currently, Lake Powell is at 23% of average,” Miller said, referring to the reservoir’s capacity. If the forecast holds, he said, that figure could rise, but not by much.. “32% isn’t great either, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Seven states are negotiating over steep cuts to keep the Colorado River flowing. The Bureau of Reclamation has indicated it may impose its own cuts if the states can’t come to an agreement. Putting off cuts risks reaching “dead pool,” when flow is cut off to lower regions because it can’t pass through a reservoir’s dams. 

“We need substantial reductions from all user groups,” Glennon said, adding that the U.S. supply of leafy greens each winter depends on farmers in Arizona who rely on Colorado River water. “If there’s no water in the river, there is not salad. All those fields go fallow.” 

Near Tahoe, Duggan managed to leave her home Wednesday afternoon under sunny skies. Workers whom she has dubbed her “snow angels” cleared a path from her front porch to her street. One-story walls of snow line the walkway.

Any inconvenience is a small price to pay, she said. 

“We’re the water bank for California. We feel the responsibility. No one really complains about the snow. We need it so badly. It feeds and answers the thirst for California. We’re happy to see it,” Duggan said. 

Then, she paused, adding in her next breath: “It’s getting to be a little bit much.”