The series of winter storms did Arizona reservoirs more good than predicted and eased the drought — but have still left the West in dire need of lots more of the same.
The Christmas Eve storm produced 20,000 acre-feet of runoff into Salt River Project reservoirs, according to SRP’s watershed manager Charlie Ester.
The C.C. Cragin Reservoir, on which Payson depends, rose by 10 feet and now is about 39% full.
Roosevelt Lake — fed by the Salt River — rose by about one foot. The chain of reservoirs now stands at 70% full compared to 77% a year ago. The Salt and Verde rivers plus Tonto Creek on Tuesday were flowing at 2,678 cubic feet per second — about five times normal.
SRP had estimated it would need seven inches of rain for that amount of improvement — but reaped the benefits from just four inches. That probably stems from the wet monsoon — which means the watershed wasn’t as dried out heading into winter this year.
Most of Arizona now remains merely “abnormally dry,” with severe or extreme drought lingering only in northern Apache, Navajo and Coconino counties — along with most of Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, according to the U.S. Drought monitor.
The region will need a steady sequence of such storms to claw its way out of drought — and avert yet another terrifying fire season. An unprecedented series of wind-driven Colorado wildfires has burned more than 1,000 homes during the holidays — underscoring the wrenching shift to year-round fires in the drought-plagued, overstocked forests of the West.
The National Weather Service predicts a return to dry conditions across most of Arizona this week and likely into next week — underscoring the unpredictability of weather patterns in recent years, which some climate scientists blame on the steady rise in average global temperatures.
Nonetheless, Snow Bowl in Flagstaff and Sunrise outside of Show Low welcomed crowds to their ski resorts over the holidays — reveling in fresh powder. Sunrise has gotten 78 inches of snow so far this season and now has almost 60 inches of base.
The storms have brought a record December snowfall to California’s Sierra Nevada. Many areas got 18 feet of snow in December, delighting long-suffering ski resorts. The snowpack rose to 160% of normal. Mind you, this comes on top of the driest July on record for the state.
The wild swings in the storm pattern remain compatible with the predictions of climate models that take into account the measured and predicted an increase in average global temperatures, due at least in part to a buildup of heat-trapping, greenhouse gas pollutants in the atmosphere — like carbon dioxide and methane.
The storms produced much less snowfall in the Rocky Mountains, the source for most of the runoff in the Colorado River. As a result, water managers continue to plan for an additional reduction in deliveries to the seven states dependent on the river — including Arizona. The plan calls for leaving an additional 500,000 acre-feet a year in Lake Mead each year through 2026. That’s on top of the 533,000 acre-foot cutback in deliveries to Arizona, California and Nevada this year with the declaration of a Tier 1 shortage. That plan will require farmers in Arizona to idle thousands of acres of farmland, with the state and federal governments paying more than $100 million annually to cushion the shortage.
The ongoing crisis on the Colorado River underscores the resilience of the SRP reservoirs on the Salt, Verde and Gila rivers.
It also underscores the advantages Rim Country and the White Mountains enjoy as the state heads ever deeper into a water crisis. Payson and other Rim Country communities have not only halted the depletion of the water table — they’ve secured rights to the 16,000 acre-foot C.C. Cragin Reservoir. For instance, Payson uses 1,800 acre-feet annually now — but also has rights to 3,000 acre-feet from the reservoir — providing it fills up during the winter. Payson has gotten only a fraction of its entitlement in the past two years due to the lack of a winter snowpack.
The White Mountains also have a big advantage over most other rural areas in the state, with the highest average rainfall in Arizona. Most communities have ample underground water supplies. The White Mountain Apache are also building a reservoir that will provide water to many reservation communities, thanks to slow progress on implementing a water settlement with the federal government.
So both Rim Country and the White Mountains have ample water to support further development — while many other areas in the state are looking at increasingly stringent water rationing.
Providing megafires in the overstocked, drought-stricken forests don’t burn the place down.