ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Record snowfall and rain have helped ease a drought in parts of the western U.S., as forecasters and climate experts warned that some areas could expect more flooding as the snow melts.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on Thursday that winter rains ended California’s worst and worst drought since 2020, with parts of the state inundated, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday. Flood warnings were in effect in neighboring Nevada, and rushing water prompted evacuations in one of Arizona’s tourist towns.
Elsewhere, the NOAA forecaster warned of an increased risk of flooding from heavy snowfall this spring over the Midwest along the Mississippi River from Minnesota south to Missouri.
Despite the easing of the drought, experts have warned that the relief may only be a blip as long-term effects remain from the stubborn dry streak.
The levels of groundwater reserves and aquifers, which have a long recovery period, remain at historic lows. It could be more than a year until the extra moisture reaches the shores of Lake Mead, which is located in Arizona and Nevada. And it’s unlikely that water managers have enough room to turn back the clock on proposals to limit water use.
That’s because water release and storage operations for the massive reservoir and its upstream sibling — Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border — are already set for the year. These reservoirs are used to manage the delivery of Colorado River water to 40 million people in seven US states and Mexico.
Lake Powell could rise 35 feet as snow melts and enters tributaries and rivers over the next three months. How much it rises depends on soil moisture levels, future rainfall, temperature and evaporation loss.
Paul Miller, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service’s Colorado River Prediction Center, said it sounds like a lot of water for one of the nation’s largest reservoirs, but it will only be about one-third full.
“It’s definitely moving in the right direction, but we’re not far from filling the reservoirs in the Colorado River system and we’re not far from being at a comfortable water supply,” Miller said during a Thursday NOAA briefing.
Federal forecasters outlined other forecasts for temperature, precipitation and drought over the next three months, saying a wet spring season will improve drought conditions in parts of the northern and central Plains, and Florida could be out of drought there by the end of June.
Overall, the West has been wet for more than 20 years, and many areas will feel the effects. Northern Rockies and parts of Washington state will likely see drought in the spring, while areas of severe to exceptional drought will remain in parts of the southern High Plains.
An emergency declaration in Oregon warns of increased risk of water shortages and wildfires in the central part of the state, and pockets of central Utah, southeastern Colorado and eastern New Mexico still face severe drought.
Ranchers in the dry state are already bracing for another dry year, and some residents are still reeling from a historic wildfire season.
John Gottschalk, chief of operational forecasting at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said the start of the wildfire season in the southwestern U.S. is likely to be delayed.
“But that doesn’t mean it didn’t end up being a very strong season,” he said. “It’s probably going to be a quieter start.”
Temperatures are forecast for New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas up the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, as well as Hawaii and northern Alaska, Gottschalk said. North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota and the Great Basin region are experiencing below-normal temperatures, he said.
The real highlight this winter was the Great Basin, which stretches from the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. More snow has been recorded this season than the last two seasons combined. Considering that in the last decade, only two years – 2017 and 2019 – snow was above average.
“We’ve passed all kinds of averages and normals in the Lower Colorado Basin,” Miller said, not in other western basins.
Tony Caliguri, president of the environmental group Colorado Open Lands, said all the recent rain shouldn’t disrupt groundwater recharge.
“The problem or danger with these episodic wet year events is that it can reduce the sense of urgency to address long-term water use and water conservation issues,” he said.
The group is testing in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, at the headwaters of the Rio Grande. One of North America’s longest rivers, the Rio Grande and its reservoirs are struggling due to low snowpack, prolonged drought and constant demand. Albuquerque was dry in the summer and managers didn’t have extra water to supplement the flow.
Colorado Open Lands has reached an agreement with a farmer to retire his land and stop irrigating nearly 1,000 acres. Caliguri said the idea is to get a big straw out of the reservoir, which would allow the deposits to sustain other farms in the district so they no longer face the threat of shutting off their wells.
“We’ve seen where we can have a lot of good years, like the San Luis Valley, when it comes to rainfall or snowfall, and then one drought year can wipe out a decade of progress,” he said. “So you can’t just stick your head in the sand because you’ve had a good wet year.”
Associated Press writers Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Drew Costley in Washington contributed to this report.
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