The West’s wacky weather

by Jonathan Thompson

In December of last year, High Country News ran a news report about the severe drought then plaguing the West. Ski slopes were brown, wildfires were still burning in California and New Mexico, and weather forecasters were calling for an ultra-dry Western winter. By the time the issue hit the streets, those streets and everything else were buried in snow, and it didn't stop falling 'til spring. Storms pounded much of the West Coast, with especially heavy rain and snow in the Northwest; high country roads were repeatedly closed in the Rockies; and 36 people had died in avalanches in the U.S. by the end of April.

Now, some parts of the high country are still trying to dig out from one of the heaviest winters on record (more snow fell in the Rockies May 1), and those in the low country are gearing up for floods. Thanks to an above-average snowpack in the mountains, the rivers in the upper Colorado River Basin are running strong. All that water, says the Bureau of Reclamation, will push Lake Powell's levels up by 50 feet, meaning the reservoir will be closer to being full than it has been since 2002. But even so, it will be far below capacity. When the reservoir reaches its midsummer peak, the white bathtub ring on Powell's sandstone cliffs will still be some 60 feet high. Then the ring will start growing again, as extra water is released from the dam to generate juice for the Southwest's air conditioners and to give the depleted Lake Mead a bit of a boost.

If forecasts are to be believed, Powell will continue to drop after that. A recent U.S. Geological Survey report found that even modest warming from climate change could dry up the Colorado River. Faced with the report, Utah Division of Water Resources director Dennis Strong told the Deseret News he's not too worried: "We're fairly confident the water supply is not going to crash. It's not going to stop flowing immediately."

Perhaps scoffing at models and forecasts is the wisest thing to do, given the wacky weather the region has experienced over the last several months. In mid-April, for example, a winter storm dumped up to three feet of snow in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, closing a major highway. A few days later, huge winds swept across the region, dumping red dust all over that new snow (speeding up the snowmelt) and fueling two wildfires in Colorado, one of which killed three people.

For a week, at least, avalanche season coincided with wildfire season, and the idea that the weather, or even the climate, can be predicted was thrown out the window.


This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.

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