Atmospheric rivers ease Western drought

Record-breaking rain and snow bring salvation — and destruction — to a drought-parched West.


This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

The wet winter brought drought relief to much of the West

Two years ago, 94% of Arizona was in exceptional drought; this year, 0% is.

If you’ve spent much time wandering around southern Utah, you’ve probably seen signs warning you that dirt roads are “IMPASSABLE WHEN WET.” And perhaps you’ve looked around at the dry sunny landscape and just laughed and kept on driving to your backcountry trailhead, despite the forecast storm heading your way. And maybe you returned to your car from a snow- and hail- and rain-sodden backpacking trip only to find that the signs were not exaggerating, and that your road out has liquefied into a slippery slime fest that is, indeed, impassible.

OK, so maybe that wasn’t you; it was me. But in my defense, that was in spring 2021, following one of the driest winters of one of the most severe droughts in over a millennium.  Back then, the roads rarely got damp, let alone muddy enough to be impassible.

Snow blows off Ragged Peak, Colorado, as seen from Paonia Reservoir.
Luna Anna Archey / High Country News

This spring I wouldn’t have the same excuse. A relentless parade of snow and heavy rain has saturated a good swath of the Western United States over the last several months, bringing joy to powder-hound skiers and filling rivers with water and snow-shovelers’ pockets with cash, while also trapping folks in the California mountains, flooding entire valleys, snarling traffic and closing major highways, knocking out power for hundreds of thousands of people and, yes, rendering virtually every unpaved road in southern Utah and beyond completely impassable. Maybe they should change the wording on those signs to “IMPOSSIBLY WET.”

At least that’s how it seemed to me when I visited the Four Corners region in mid-March. Yet another moisture-laden storm had just swept across it, dumping rain in the lowlands and piling up snow in the high country, and I was eager to get outside and see the aftereffects. What I witnessed was a soothing balm to this drought-weary soul.

Driving along CO-65 in Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado, on Saturday March 25, 2023. As of Saturday, the Grand Mesa Nordic Council measured 413 inches of seasonal snowfall at their main trailhead. The road had been closed the previous week due to the large snowfall. Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

The San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado glistened with near-record-breaking snowpack levels, and skiers were swarming mid-elevation slopes that are frequently bare this late in the year. Lower altitude arroyos, from McElmo Creek to Comb Wash in Utah, were swollen with roiling chocolate-milk-colored torrrents even wilder than those that follow intense summer monsoonal storms. The sagebrush glowed with an especially rich sagebrush hue. And every depression or pothole in the sandstone held its own bright liquid mirror, reflecting the cloud-dappled blue sky above. As I got out of my car to admire the juxtaposition of Comb Ridge’s red-rock vertebrae against the brilliance of the snow-blanketed Abajo Mountains, I swear I could feel the arid Western earth sighing with relief.

744 inches
Total snowfall reported at Alta ski resort in Utah this season as of March 24.

Amount a Tahoe-area homeowner reportedly was quoted to have snow removed from their roof.

Percent of Arizona in severe to exceptional drought in March 2021.

Percent of Arizona in severe to exceptional drought on March 21, 2023.

The snow covering the Abajos and the La Sal Mountains north of them contains more than twice the 30-year “normal” amount of moisture for this time of year. Some sites in California’s Sierra Nevada have four times the normal snowpack and nearly double the previous record, as many a resident who has had to tunnel downward into snowbanks just to reach their front doors — or even their second-story windows — can attest. Farther south, in the San Bernardino Mountains outside Los Angeles, roofs collapsed under the weight of the snow, and entire communities were isolated from the outside world by snow-closed roads for days.

This snow will serve as a giant natural reservoir for the West once it begins melting and trickles, tumbles and roars downhill to fill up the rivers and reservoirs below, warming the hearts of irrigators, hydropower users and water managers. Officials are rushing to release water from Lake Oroville in California to make room for the abundant runoff that will soon refill the reservoir, which dropped so low in 2021 that hydropower production ceased. After months of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over the prospect of Glen Canyon Dam losing hydropower production capacity altogether — even reaching the dreaded “dead pool” state — the Bureau of Reclamation is now predicting this winter’s bountiful snowpack will be enough to fend off further water level declines through 2024.

The West has received a rare walloping of moisture this winter, but Lake Powell is still a shadow of itself. Short wave infrared images comparing Powell’s water levels in 2016 to images taken earlier this month reveal just how much the reservoir shrunk.
Samuel Shaw / High Country News

As of late March, the snowpack in the Upper Colorado River region was far above normal and even exceeded the level for the same date in 1997, the highest year on record. That’s big, but also comes with a caveat: Record-keeping on that combination of weather stations goes back only to 1986, so does not account for the monster 1983 and 1984 water years, when Lake Powell’s rising waters cratered Glen Canyon Dam’s spillways and then spilled dramatically over the top of the dam.

The added moisture will buoy rivers and reservoirs enough to guarantee that most of the farmers who watched their ditches and fields run dry over the past two summers will receive their allocated shares of water this year. It will also — for better or worse — ease some of the urgency behind efforts to cut Colorado River water consumption to sustainable levels The Western drought is far from over, but it certainly has subsided: Two years ago, nearly 60% of the region was in severe, extreme or exceptional drought; now it’s down to 16%, and Arizona is nearly drought-free.

But what brings salvation to some delivers destruction to others. On March 10, the Parajo River in Monterey County, California, burst through an aging levee and inundated Pajaro, an unincorporated, mostly low-income community that is home to immigrant farmworkers. The same tempest breached the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the Owens Valley, threatening water deliveries to millions. The 11th and 12th atmospheric rivers to pummel California this year triggered a landslide in San Clemente, leaving homes perilously close to an unstable slope. In northern and central Arizona, the sometimes-dry Oak Creek and Verde River turned into raging torrents, forcing mass evacuations. Two hikers were killed by flash flooding in a southern Utah canyon, and a third had to be rescued by helicopter. A chopper was also used to rescue a kayaker who capsized on the burgeoning Salt River in Arizona, near where another man drowned a few days earlier.

This aerial photograph shows a car and market shop in floodwaters in Pajaro, California, in early March. Residents were forced to evacuate in the middle of the night after an atmospheric river surge broke the the Pajaro Levee and sent flood waters flowing into the community.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

About 1,200 skiers at Alta and Snowbird resorts in Utah were trapped by avalanches and heavy snowfall in late March. In Colorado, flooding shut one state highway down, while extreme avalanche danger shut off nearby arteries, cutting off the small town of Silverton from the outside world for nearly three days. At nearby Purgatory Resort, which had already suffered two fatalities this year, a roof-avalanche careened off a building and buried a father and his two children, leaving all three in critical condition. The 5-year-old girl later died from her injuries.

78,100 cubic feet per second
Flow of the Verde River near Camp Verde, Arizona, on March 22, the third highest since 1934.

Minimum number of people killed during a “bomb cyclone” that hammered California on March 21.

Approximate number of Pacific Gas & Electric customers left without power in mid-March after high winds and heavy rains toppled trees and utility lines in Northern California.

Number of avalanche-related fatalities in the U.S. this season as of March 27. 

At the onset of winter, meteorologists predicted that a third consecutive La Niña year, when Pacific Ocean temperatures cool, would likely further dry out and warm the Southwest, while bringing cool, wet weather to the Northwest. Obviously, that didn’t happen. In fact, parts of the Northwest were abnormally dry this winter, and drought persists across much of the region. While the wacky weather didn’t jive with typical La Niña patterns, it does fit with what climate change is expected to bring: Wetter atmospheric rivers and drier droughts, along with whiplash-inducing swings from one to the other. 

Now scientists have declared that the three-year La Niña streak is finally over. And an El Niño may be moving in, which could mean an even wetter year next year for much of the West. Yikes.

Hold the Line: Stories from HCN and elsewhere that are worth your time

On March 21, President Joe Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame National Monument on more than 500,000 acres of public land in southern Nevada surrounding the mountain of that name, which is the origin place of 10 Yuman-speaking tribes. The designation includes provisions for tribal co-stewardship. The Joshua tree-studded landscape, which provides habitat for Gila monsters, desert tortoises and an array of other Mojave Desert flora and fauna, had been targeted for solar and wind development in the past. Anna V. Smith reports on the monument’s designation and the history behind it for High Country News. | High Country News

A multi-state battle rages over a proposed 85-mile rail line in northeastern Utah that would carry oil from the Uinta Basin to the national rail network and eventually to Gulf Coast refineries. Colorado leaders, from members of Congress to city and county officials, oppose the plan because the crude-laden trains would travel through the state, increasing the risk of derailment and a spill into the Colorado River. Conservationists are fighting the proposal because it would facilitate drilling for waxy Uinta crude, which is much too viscous to ship through pipelines; an additional 2,000 new wells would be needed to make the rail project economically viable. Samuel Shaw reports on the fight for High Country News. | High Country News 

The United States Supreme Court is currently considering Arizona v. Navajo Nation, in which the Navajo Nation argues that the U.S. federal government is bound by treaty to protect the tribe’s water interests. One of the amicus briefs filed in support of the nation’s case comes from the Diné Hataałii Association, an organization of over 200 medicine men and women from all five regions of the Navajo Nation. The brief beautifully weaves together traditional Diné worldviews with tribal law. Anna V. Smith interviews Derrick Beetso, one of the brief’s authors, for High Country News. It’s a fascinating read. | High Country News


We want to hear from you!

 Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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