A wet winter misses the Southwest

  • Firefighters work in New Mexico to contain a blaze

    Clyde Mueller

Refreshed by last year's drought-ending weather, most Westerners will wallow in water again this spring. Except in parts of the Southwest, where the fire season has already started, it should be a wet spring.

Federal weather forecasters say reservoirs are full across most of the West and snowpacks are extremely high in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, formerly the Soil Conservation Service, anticipates strong summer streamflows in four states, which is great news for water users, including the electrical power industry, wildlife and river runners, who can expect a Class V summer.

In Idaho, snowpacks are 100-120 percent of average across the central and southern parts of the state, and forecasters are warning residents in flood-prone areas to monitor streams carefully during runoff season. Expecting the largest runoff in 10 years, dam operators on the upper Snake released water at an unusually high rate in March. The action was intended to avoid the mistake dam operators made last year: After a wet spring, huge midsummer dam releases nearly wiped out the fishing guide business.

The Northwest was denuded by major floods and higher than average precipitation this winter, which topped last spring's records (HCN, 5/29/95). The good news is that the early runoff swept away much of the low-elevation snowpack, reducing the chance of spring floods. The summer water supply for irrigators also looks good across the Northwest, officials say, including eastern Washington's drought-prone Yakima Valley.

Utah is both wet and dry this year. In the northern part of the state, reservoir levels are higher than average; in southern Utah, snowpack levels are extremely low. Even so, Randy Julander of the Natural Resources Conservation Service isn't worried about drought because last year's excess water combined with effective reservoir management should prevent water shortages, he says.

But the Southwest faces a dry summer. Fires are raging in Arizona and New Mexico, and University of Arizona researcher Chris Baisan says fire danger will remain high throughout the summer. A fire that started April 25 in the Santa Fe National Forest near Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico had burned more than 16,000 acres of the Jemez Mountains by May 2. Forest Service official Dolores Maese says bone-dry conditions and high temperatures fueled the blaze, which came dangerously close to the Los Alamos Laboratory, the nation's only fully operational nuclear weapons plant that uses plutonium.

The culprit is known to meteorologists as "La Nina." With her brother, "El Nino," the Pacific Ocean siblings create a cycle that drives fluctuating patterns in the southwestern United States, says Baisan. When Pacific Ocean water temperatures drop, "La Nina" is on her way, bringing a high-pressure system and dry weather to Arizona and New Mexico. Baisan expects dry conditions and fires to prevail until "El Nino" brings wetter weather in the fall.

* Bill Taylor and Michelle McClellan, HCN interns

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