Wow.

Whiplash.

But gotta love those reservoirs.

Salt River Project announced this week that the 2021 monsoon ranks as the second wettest on record — right on the heels of the second driest winter since the start of reliable record keeping 109 years ago.

The monsoon came within 0.02 of an inch of setting the all-time record — with monsoon records stretching back to the 1950s.

Normally, the winter snowpack fills the seven reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers.

However, this year’s bone-dry winter produced a paltry 103,000 acre-feet.

Pause now for a monsoon drum roll.

By contrast, the 2021 monsoon came through with 250,000 acre-feet.

The rains that rush off the slopes of the White Mountains and Rim Country provide a huge share of the water that sustains the Valley — whether it’s the winter snowpack or the furious monsoon storms. That’s one thing that gives the whole state a stake in those watersheds, now facing the dire threat of megafires due to the collapse of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, intended to thin trees, restore watersheds and protect reservoirs.

“We know we have great climate variability in the Southwest,” said Charlie Ester, manager of SRP Watershed Management. “The past two seasons demonstrate that by producing the second driest winter season ever followed by the second wettest summer season ever.”

SRP provides water for half of the Valley’s population, roughly 2 million people. The Salt and Verde watersheds cover some 8.3 million acres in northern and eastern Arizona.

SRP operates seven reservoirs on the Salt and Verde, plus the C.C. Cragin Reservoir — which holds some 16,000 acre-feet. The C.C. Cragin would drain into the Little Colorado, if Payson and SRP didn’t pump the water out and put it in the East Verde River and in a pipeline delivering 3,000 acre-feet annually to Payson.

Roosevelt Lake remains at about 70% full — with about 1.1 million acre-feet in storage. The downstream Salt River reservoirs are in even better shape, all three hold a combined 200,000 acre-feet. The three Verde River reservoirs are only half full, with 150,000 acre-feet. Thanks to the brimming monsoon, the Salt and Verde systems weathered the disastrous winter surprisingly well.

Contrast that monsoon with the dwindling reservoirs on the Colorado River — fed almost entirely by snowmelt off the Rocky Mountains. Lake Mead and Lake Powell have shrunk to a little more than a third of their capacity. Lake Mead now still holds about 112 million acre-feet — but has a capacity of 30 million acre-feet. This has triggered rationing, with Arizona slated to lose more than 500,000 acre-feet. That amounts to about 18% of the state’s Colorado River allotment and 8% of its total water use.

The shortages on the Colorado River will likely force many Arizona farmers to let their fields lie fallow.

The monsoon has left most of Arizona and New Mexico in moderate to severe drought, with only the Navajo Nation still in extreme drought. However, most of the rest of the West remains in extreme or exceptional drought. The current, 20-year drought ranks as one of the worst in the past 2,000 years, according to estimates based on tree-ring data.

Unfortunately, the National Weather Service currently says we’ll probably face another dry winter. This could lead to even more severe shortages on the Colorado River next year.

Both Powell and Mead have already dropped to the lowest levels on record since they were filled decades ago. Some 40 million people in seven states rely on water from the Colorado River, with Arizona and Nevada last in line when water rationing sets in.

The Colorado River Compact decades ago allocated 7.5 million acre-feet to the four upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah.

The agreement allocates another 7.5 million acre-feet to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.

California’s first in line for the lower basin share, with rights to 4.4 million acre-feet. Arizona’s entitlement amounts to 2.8 million acre-feet and Nevada’s to 300,000 acre-feet — most of which goes to Las Vegas.

However, the seven states split up rights to the river during a wet period in the early 20th century. Even before the drought, the average flow of the river had dropped well below the allocated 15 million acre-feet.

Some climate scientists predict that flows on the Colorado will become ever more unpredictable, as higher average temperatures result in a smaller snowpack and longer and more severe droughts. Climate models suggest that perhaps 40% to 60% of the current drought conditions may be linked to the increase in average temperatures globally that has already taken place.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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