The West’s wacky weather

  • NOAA, National weather service, top; usda, natural resources conservation service, Bottom

  • U.S. BUREAU OF RECLAMATION

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]