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Know the West

Dry January means more drought across West

After a rainy December, many states now have lower-than-normal snowpacks.


In the Westlands Water District, a 600,000-acre agricultural district near Fresno, California, February is usually planting season, when workers and tractors crowd fields intended for garbanzo beans and tomatoes and where seedlings may already be working their way through soil. But this year, California’s drought has made bare dirt a common sight, fallowing a third of the district’s agricultural land.

Snow survey site, California. Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Conservation Service.

That’s not likely to improve anytime soon. Last week, the California Department of Water Resources took the second manual snowpack measurement of the season and found just a quarter of what has normally accumulated by this time. In some spots, the snowpack was as low as a tenth of normal.

California’s not alone in facing a lack of water. The same day as the dismal snowpack measurement, the National Drought Mitigation Center released a map of conditions throughout the country. Much of the West was in some sort of desiccation, ranging from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought.” But the effects of that drought aren’t evenly distributed, even within California, thanks to the vagaries of local water systems.

At the start of this “water year,” which begins in October and runs through April, things didn’t seem so dire. Much of the West saw December rains. Heavy storms caused flooding in northern California, the source of much of Westlands’ water, and drenched the southern half of the state.

But January was dry. December’s weather prevented a total dry-out, but large swaths of California, Nevada, Oregon and the mountain West saw less than half their usual precipitation. When water did fall from the sky, warm temperatures meant that it often came as rain, rather than snow.

The dry spell in January, the midpoint of the water year, means bad news for water supply all year long. Even if things do look up, the West Coast, at least, doesn’t have much time left to make up the deficit.

“If you don't get it by the end of April, you probably won't get it at all,” said Kelly Redmond, the deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center. “Stuff that falls in the summer just turns right around and evaporates again.”

Further inland, cooler summer temperatures mean early summer rains can make a dent.

Water managers are already eyeing conditions and beginning to plan how much water they'll give to farmers and to cities.

Lake Powell, in the Colorado River Basin, is projected to receive just 73 percent of its normal seasonal water supply. In New Mexico, the Rio Grande water system, which includes Albuquerque, is likely facing a fourth year of drought. The two New Mexico-based Rio Grande reservoirs—Elephant Butte and Caballo—currently have just 15 percent of their capacity.

In the Pacific Northwest, the trouble is less about the quantity of water that fell and more about how it fell.

“We're not like California with massive reservoir capacity,” said Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington. “We use snowpack like a reservoir.”

Those reservoirs are looking pretty depleted. Most parts of the Cascade Mountains have less than half their usual snowpack.

Surprisingly, California reservoir levels are up from last year, thanks to the rain that ought to have been snow. The State Water Project, the state-run system for watering Central Valley farms and cities all along the coast, upped their promised water supply from 10 to 15 percent of what users asked for. But that may have no impact on the Westlands. Its supplier, the federally managed Central Valley Project, didn’t allocate any water for agriculture last year. Gayle Holman, a spokeswoman for Westlands, says they are anticipating the same this year. 

There’s still a chance conditions could improve. Atmospheric rivers, narrow air flows that carry large amounts of moisture, can bring even severe droughts to an end. The December rains came from an atmospheric river hitting the coast last fall. Another will likely hit the West Coast this weekend. But for those hoping for the drought to end completely, Redmond has a word of caution.

“You probably don't want to get out of the drought completely,” said Redmond. “That would mean a flood.”

Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News.