Westerners who have been praying for an end to a decade of drought may have prayed a little too hard. The West is wet once again, and in some places downright soggy. Many states have been so loaded with snow this winter that residents are keeping their fingers crossed as rivers surge to the flooding point.
Colorado is sloshing through its wettest
spring in more than a decade. Heavy rain and snowstorms continued
throughout April and May, resulting in above-average reservoir
storage-levels. The statewide snowpack level in mid-May was 199
percent of average.
Near Boulder, where the
ground was 80 percent saturated, residents faced perhaps the worst
flooding in 101 years. The weather was responsible for at least one
death when yet another storm hit the state on May 17. After getting
stuck in mud and water on Interstate 25, a woman abandoned her car
only to be killed by another passing vehicle. During the same
storm, a Burger King parking lot collapsed in Golden, Colo., and
dozens of rockslides were reported, closing many
But according to the Natural Resources
Conservation Service, the greatest flood risks continued in western
Colorado, in the Gunnison, Arkansas and San Juan river
There was an up side: Arapahoe Basin, a
ski area just west of Denver, remained open through April with a
snow base of 100 inches; then 11 inches of new snow fell during the
first week of May. The resort hopes to remain open for the Fourth
of July holiday.
Rafters at Dvorak Expeditions,
which runs trips on 10 rivers through seven Western states, said
they were hoping for a gradual release of water from the high
country. "If it's a nice, calm, easy spring ... and it just sort of
spreads itself over the whole summer, that's wonderful, that's
ideal," says Jaci Dvorak.
In Utah, a warm
February was followed by a stormy March, adding to snowpack levels,
and residents compare conditions this year with those of 1983, when
a sharp rise in spring temperatures melted a huge snowpack and
brought on heavy flooding.
The statewide snowpack
level hit 233 percent of average in mid-May and precipitation
levels were also above average. The result: Rivers such as the
Green near Jensen in the northeast and Little Cotton Creek in the
southeast were rising and could be at risk of
Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the
National Weather Service, says snow was still adding to the
snowpack in late April.
"The longer we keep this
period going where it's cold and we keep adding to the snowpack,
the window gets narrower for all that water to come down," he says.
"It isn't a big deal right now, but it's something we're acutely
watching because it could get scary. If it just dumps a ton of rain
on this snow, we'll have problems real fast."
The Willamette River in northwestern
Oregon swelled this spring to its highest level in eight years, and
Idaho boasted its best snowpack since the mid-1980s, which was good
news for young salmon migrating to the Pacific Ocean (see story on
page 6). Idaho's Wood and Lost River basins held the best snowpack
in the state this year, more than 130 percent of average, and
forecasters predicted they could reach as much as 150 percent. Last
year those basins were hardest hit by
Washington is struggling through its
wettest year since 1991. Steady winter rains have been filling
reservoirs and rivers, and the statewide snowpack level was 126
percent of average.
Scott Pattee, a water supply
specialist with Washington state's Natural Resources Conservation
Service, says flooding isn't a concern because balmy March
temperatures melted the mid-level snowpack.
should be pretty safe at this point," says Pattee. "There's no
guarantee, of course ... If we get great big torrential rains or
something, that would make a difference."
Twenty-five-year-old precipitation records were
swept away in January, and torrential rains in February caused
flooding on the Skokomish River in western Washington. Pattee says
no areas in Washington are dry right now - a stark contrast to last
year's widespread drought conditions which resulted in water
rationing for some
Farmers in Montana feared the worst when
low precipitation levels for the first half of the winter seemed to
match last year's, which figured in months of summer drought.
Midwinter balmy weather had the snowpack melting as early as
February, with Miles City, in eastern Montana, recording a high of
72 degrees on Feb. 24 - 11 degrees higher than the previous record
set 99 years earlier. By that time, snowpack levels were 12 percent
below average and the state's Drought Advisory Committee warned of
the potential for a dry summer.
But April brought
wet, cool weather that boosted snowpack levels to slightly above
normal. In all of the Western states, southwest and central Montana
enjoyed some of the highest gains in snowpack. Farmers in the east
and southeast may still have cause for concern, though; in some of
these areas the year's precipitation level remained below
"At this point it looks a lot better
than it did but it can change really fast as far as the irrigators
go," says Jim Steinveisser, of the drought committee. "The ones
that are irrigating out of some of these rivers that have very
little snowpack are going to be in serious shape down the road."
patches held on in the southwest as well, though most of Arizona,
New Mexico and Nevada aren't nearly as dry as last year. The
snowpack was already melting in Arizona and New Mexico in May, and
little snow existed below 8,000 feet. Reservoir storage in most
areas registered average to above average.
of northern Nevada, however, stayed dry and some streamflows
remained below average, although many reservoirs across the rest of
the state showed their highest levels in five years. The Sierra
Nevadas were hammered by early spring storms that added to
snowpacks, and the Lake Tahoe basin showed the highest snowpack
level - 252 percent - that was 14 times last year's. Seven of
Nevada's basins held snowpack at or near 200 percent of
* Karen McDonald, HCN