A series of big winter storms has finally boosted the snowpack in California and the Rocky Mountains to near normal — for the first time in years.
Arizona also has a nearly-normal snowpack, with between 2 and 24 inches falling all along the Mogollon Rim and into the White Mountains in the most recent storm. However, the snow in Arizona makes only a modest contribution to runoff into the Colorado River, a vital water source in seven states — especially Nevada, California and Arizona.
The snow on the Rocky Mountains came just in time to perhaps ease a developing crisis on the Colorado River, where Lake Mead had fallen to record lows.
As the snow fell, a historic meeting of the Colorado Water Users Association failed to agree to a long-term plan to protect the water supply in the chain of reservoirs along the Colorado River.
If the group can’t come to an agreement and Lake Mead falls any further, Arizona and Nevada could find themselves rationed or cut off — since California has priority when it comes time to ration the water.
The water users hoped to adjust allotments and agree on conservation measures to stretch the water supply and avert a cutoff with devastating consequences to lower-priority states. Las Vegas, Nev. is amongst the most vulnerable, since it relies almost entirely on the Colorado River.
Most of the outstanding issues involve California. Key issues remain providing enough water to keep the Salton Sea from drying up and leaving enough water in the Sacramento River delta to prevent serious environmental effects.
Payson remains in a happily secure position. The town currently relies entirely on well water. Well levels had dropped more than 100 feet until the town imposed water conservation rules a decade ago. Since then, the water table has stabilized. By 2018, Payson will roughly double its water supply with the completion of the C.C. Cragin pipeline.
Roosevelt Lake has dwindled to just 37 percent of normal, reflecting a relatively dry year to this point. However, this week the Salt River had a flow of 1,460 cubic feet per second — almost three times its normal flow. The Verde River had a flow of 797 cubic feet per second, also nearly three times normal. Tonto Creek carried 227 cubic feet per second, compared to its normal flow of just 25 cfs.
Payson has secured its water future, but other cities throughout the region have been following the drama of the disappearing Lake Mead with breathless anticipation.
The snowpack in 2015 on the Colorado River watershed was far below normal, the latest disappointing year in a 16-year, record drought. The storms of 2016 have raised hope for at least a reprieve from rationing. Forecasters say the waning El Niño sea surface warming in the Eastern Pacific could produce a wetter-than normal winter in the West.