Western U.S. Benefiting from Break in Drought

Published June 13, 2011

Above-average rainfall in many parts of the western United States and heavy winter snows in Western mountains have brought an end to drought conditions across much of the West. Also, with unusually large amounts of snow holding fast in western U.S. mountain ranges, warming temperatures during the early summer will bring greater than normal water runoff for many western states.

Lake Mead Tells the Story
Visitors to Las Vegas, Nevada in recent years have watched the impact of the recent drought which, combined with increasing regional water demand, has strikingly diminished water levels in Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam. From 1975 through 2002, Lake Mead, which serves as a major reservoir source for Arizona and Nevada and is included in a river management plan for seven states, maintained impressive water levels above the lake’s historical average. Since 2002, however, the lake level has been below its historical average, falling below drought levels in 2007.

This spring, however, water levels at the Hoover Dam rose as Lake Mead filled with runoff from abundant regional rainfall and record snows in much of the western United States. Lake Mead has risen more than 15 feet this year and is expected to rise another 32 feet through next winter as regional snow cover eventually melts and fills the lake.

Regional Snows Persist
Even into late May, all the western states with the exception of southern Colorado retained snowpack 10 to 80 percent above normal, reported meteorologist Anthony Watts.

“This is unusual for most of the western states to be so far ahead on snowpack all at the same time rather than from one or two states,” Watts observed.

The late and deep snowpack is delighting skiers. According to the Squaw Valley Tracker, “Squaw Valley has just reached over 700 inches of total snow accumulation—something that has never happened in Squaw Valley’s recorded history.”

Hemispheric Trends Defy Alarmism
Data reported by the Rutgers University Global Snow Lab show Northern Hemisphere snow cover during the past 30 years has moderately increased during the autumn, slightly increased during the winter, and moderately declined during the spring. As a whole, snow cover has been pretty stable, defying predictions of global warming alarmists.

Precipitation Cycles Will Continue
Reed Watson, a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center, cautioned that hydrological conditions can be fickle, so western states should not be surprised when drought conditions occur again.

“We should not read too much into the good news,” Watson said. “There are natural fluctuations in water supplies that occur all the time.”

Still, western states are breathing easy—for the time being, at least.

California’s Unique Situation
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) officially declared the end of drought conditions that had been affecting some of the state’s most vital farm areas. California had been operating under a drought declaration issued in 2008 by the previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate for the California group Friends of the River, cautioned California is a naturally arid state. Periods of abundant rain and snowfall alternate with periods of drought.

“In California, when we have a lot of water we deliver more water [to other users]. When we don’t, people turn on their pumps and suck groundwater,” Stork said. “Regardless, California is an arid state. Water conservation investments need to be made all the time.”

Stork said conservation efforts should include decreased use among residents and more subsidies from other parts of the country for the construction of dams and the operation of existing facilities.

“You’re in a long-term situation in parts of California that require reduction in demand,” he said. “There’s just more water being used on average than the surface water supplies and the ground can support.”

Says Subsidies Unnecessary
Watson disagrees with the call for subsidies.

“I don’t know of any significant number of new dams being proposed,” he said, stating the only justifiable subsidies might stem from renegotiations in payments to the federal government for the maintenance and use of existing dams.

Otherwise, Watson explained, blanket subsidies “incentivize farmers to consumer more [water], which exacerbates the problem.

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from northern Virginia.