LAS VEGAS (AP) – Rocky Mountains snowpack that feeds Colorado River water supplies was 20 percent below average in December in some areas, prompting a prediction that the key water source for seven U.S. states could flow at 54 percent of its average volume during the April-July snowpack runoff period.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Wednesday that the conditions issued by the National Weather Service's Colorado Basin River Forecast Center could improve if more snow falls but that winter precipitation so far has been far below normal.
The river is a critical water source for Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Lake Mead's surface has dropped more than 130 feet since drought descended on the Colorado in 2000. But the lake that sits upstream from Hoover Dam east of Las Vegas ended 2017 almost 2 feet higher than a year ago, as use of Colorado River water by Nevada, Arizona and California hit its lowest level since 1992.
According to preliminary accounting figures from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, those three states consumed a combined 6.7 million acre-feet from the river last year, driven by wet conditions in California and widening efforts to curb use in Arizona.
That left enough water in Lake Mead to keep it more than 7 feet above the trigger point for a federal shortage declaration, which would mean mandatory cuts for river users in Nevada and Arizona.
The federal projections released last month called for Lake Mead to finish 2018 roughly 4 feet lower than it is now but still safely out of shortage territory. In light of Wednesday's river forecast, the projections for the lake are almost certain to get worse.
Colorado River author and expert John Fleck said the reduction in consumption is impressive considering the population in the areas served by the river has grown by about 7 million people since 1992.
"It's a sign that we are succeeding in using less water in the Lower Colorado Basin," said Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
"It's critical that we're learning to do this, because this isn't enough. We're going to have to do it more," he told the Review-Journal.
Editor's Note: Headline was changed to correctly show the level of the snowpack