Wilted West staggers into summer

Meager snow pack leaves reservoirs low, fire danger high


In the small town of Havre in north-central Montana, the fourth year of a crippling drought is forcing farm equipment dealers to close shop and head for the cities - leaving many farmers and ranchers to wonder whether they should find other work, too. This spring, winds swept over the parched ground, picking up dust and depositing it high against four-foot fences, recalling images of the "dust bowl" of the 1930s. Massive reservoirs built 70 years ago to guard against such water shortages are down to record lows.

"To see these big projects with just a puddle in them is astounding," says Jess Aber, water resource planner for Montana's Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. "Some of these people will have to declare bankruptcy. They'll be saddled with the guilt that the family farm was lost while they were in charge."

Montana isn't the only state worried about water. Throughout the West, snowpacks are lagging below average and temperatures are unusually warm. Longtime climatologist Kelly Redmond, of the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nev., says this is the first year he can remember where all reservoirs throughout the West have reported below-average water levels; many states are struggling with several consecutive years of dry conditions. In Colorado, whose snowmelt supplies water to much of the Southwest, statewide snowpack is only 52 percent of average - the worst since the benchmark drought year of 1977. Arizona reports snowpack levels as low as 1 percent of average in its driest stretches.

"There's potential for trouble almost everywhere," Redmond says. "In the Western states, the further south and east you go, the worse it gets."

No water to spare

On the surface, the Northwest seems to be in the best shape. "We had three times as much snowfall this year as last year, and our skier numbers hit a 10-year high," says Tiana Enger, marketing assistant for Washington's Crystal Mountain Resort. Still, decent snowpacks will barely compensate for last year's stifling dry spell, and streamflows in regions of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon remain below average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service drought monitor.

For the rest of the West, low snowpack means low streamflows and another difficult summer for folks who depend on water to pay the bills. "Everybody's hunkering down and getting ready for a tough year," says Steve Vandiver, an engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources in the Rio Grande Basin. The river's flow will be less than half of average this spring.

Recreation industries may need to shift their seasons, since peak flows for boating and fishing are predicted to occur before Memorial Day. Joe Powell, a boater and outfitter in Telluride, Colo., says there will be very little rafting on rivers such as the San Miguel. "There's just no water. You'd have to get up and walk."

Agriculture may be the industry hardest hit by the dry season. In some places, forecasters predict that those who hold junior water rights might never see a drop, and be forced to let fields lie fallow. Multiple years of low precipitation have prevented many livestock producers from growing their own feed, says Terry Fankhauser of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. As ranchers spend more money on scarce hay, they "might have to tighten the belt and sell a few cattle," he says.

What's worse, the Bureau of Land Management is clamping restrictions on up to 25 percent of the state's grazing permits, leaving Fankhauser and other ranchers to wonder where they will take their herds.

Wild animals may have trouble finding food, too. Billy Barr, a weather-data specialist at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, says Colorado has had the three driest consecutive winters in 30 years. "That means bad flowering, the vegetation doesn't last as long, and things don't go to seed. There's not enough vegetation for the animals." Inadequate forage could send more critters to town looking for food.

Light snowpack also means increased risk of forest fires. "We've staffed fire crews seven days a week since March 10. Usually they don't come on until April or May," says Paul Orozco, fire staff officer for the Santa Fe National Forest.

Fire specialist Jay Ellington says that while the number of fires in the Southwest so far this year is not unusually high, "the potential for fire is as dramatic as 2000," when the devastating Cerro Grande fire scorched the city of Los Alamos, N.M. As if to foreshadow a summer of flames, on March 31, a lightning strike in New Mexico's Gila National Forest ignited a smoky fire that burned for two weeks and ate up 37,000 acres.

More than smoke is obscuring views in the West: Higher than average winds are whisking up dust, reducing visibility on the roads. In early April, a dust storm in Grand Junction, Colo., caused a 12-car pileup on the interstate. Coolidge, Ariz., was the site of a similar accident involving 26 cars.

The West is going dry

Climatologists and politicians alike fear that drought will be a recurring theme, and many states are coming up with plans and policies to deal with dry times. Redmond says that explosive population growth and drought could combine to cause water-management problems in the coming years, especially because the West is trending toward warmer winters, resulting in earlier spring runoff and drier summers.

The Western Governors' Association recently drafted the National Drought Policy Act of 2002, which would create an interagency coalition to research and monitor drought and would allocate funds to combat it, a concept similar to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates resources between federal land management and weather bureaus.

While the bill awaits congressional action, many states have moved ahead and formed drought-advisory committees that provide education and financial assistance. State water officials like Montana's Jess Aber are lobbying for support of an amendment to the Farm Bill that would allocate $2.4 billion for drought disaster relief in Western states, providing funds to compensate growers for lost crops and livestock.

Says Aber, "Our people need some money now. We're seeing wholesale liquidation of livestock and our economic base. The whole state will feel the ripple effect."

Sarah Wright is a High Country News intern.


  • Kelly Redmond, Western Regional Climate Center in Nevada, 775/674-7010;
  • Tom Wordell, National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, 208/387-5512, www.nifc.gov;
  • Jess Aber, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conserva- tion, water resources division, 406/444-6628, nris.state.mt.us/drought;
  • Or, see the U.S. Drought Monitor Web site, www.unl.edu/monitor/monitor.html.
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