Heavy snowfall from a number of atmospheric rivers has brought a slightly rosier outlook for the embattled Colorado River.

While not enough to fully defend against falling water levels, the snow that has fallen in recent weeks through the mountains that feed the river is expected to stem the decline in Lake Mead, according to the latest federal projections released last week. Forecasters now expect Lake Mead to end this year around 1,027 feet high, about 19 feet below its current level. That’s about 7 feet higher than the 2023 year-end elevation in the office’s forecast last month.

As for Lake Powell, the reservoir located on the border between Utah and Arizona it is now expected to end 2023 at 3,543 feet, or 16 feet higher than last month’s forecast and about 19 feet higher than its current level.

still in shortage

While projections have improved with snowpack, the forecast levels mean Lake Mead will remain in lean conditions for at least a third year in a row.

“I think the big picture is that we’re dealing with some very long-term shortfalls along the Colorado River system,” said Steph McAfee, a state climatologist and professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “A good year is good news. And I don’t want to diminish that. But it’s not going to solve the problem.”

The basin has been heavily helped by a series of nine atmospheric rivers that battered much of the west over a three-week period beginning days after Christmas. Snowpack numbers across the region are well above average, with some parts of California and Nevada currently near or over 200 percent of average for this point in the year.

For the Colorado River, most of the runoff will be snow melt in the western Rocky Mountains, where snowpack currently sits at a healthy 146 percent of average.

Snowmelt runoff from April to July is expected to raise the river to 117 percent of its 30-year average as snow melts and flows downstream to Lake Powell, according to the latest projections from the Center for Colorado Basin River Forecast. That’s a substantial 79 percent increase from the average the center had forecast for the river last month.

hard predictions

The question now is whether that wet trend will continue, something that is very difficult to predict for the upper Colorado River basin, McAfee said. An encouraging sign for the basin as a whole has been the lower-than-normal temperatures, which she says have helped prevent the snowpack from melting too soon.

“It is entirely possible that we could have more storms. We also may not be able to,” she said. “When it comes to drought in the West, I appreciate all the good news. But we may have to wait and see.”

Meanwhile, the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River are working to reach an agreement on how to reduce an unprecedented amount of water use along the river starting this year. Federal officials say the effort is necessary to prevent the nation’s two largest reservoirs from subsiding to levels that would threaten hydroelectric power generation and water supply operations at the Hoover and Glenn Canyon dams.

Bureau of Reclamation officials have given states until the end of January to agree on a consensus proposal on how to make those cuts, or risk the federal government taking those steps on its own.

“Even if we had enough good years in a row to get Lake Mead back to where it was in 1984 and 1985, we would still have to deal with this problem in the future,” McAfee said. “So we might as well figure out how to deal with it now.”

Contact Colton Lochhead at bellhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow, continue @ColtonLochhead On twitter.

By sbavh

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