Colorado River water levels dropping

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado shows a sparse snowpack for the winter, which has officials with the Arizona Department of Water Resources and stakeholders along the Colorado River worried about Lake Mead water level.

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Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado shows a sparse snowpack for the winter, which has officials with the Arizona Department of Water Resources and stakeholders along the Colorado River worried about Lake Mead water level.

KINGMAN – Water levels are dropping on the Colorado River and Lake Mead, quite noticeable from the “bathtub ring” at the lake, and it’s going to get worse after a sparse snowfall in the Rockies this winter.

Arizonans enjoyed beautiful, warm and sunny days in January, with only 0.59 inch of rain. Temperatures were 10 to 15 degrees above normal on several days.

The entire Southwest has experienced one of the warmest, driest winters on record. That’s great for golfing, but unsettling with the unprecedented lack of snowpack runoff in the Colorado River.

Forecasts call for continued dry weather into the fast-approaching spring season.

Winter is typically the Southwest’s season for accumulating snowpack in its mountain regions, which provides runoff into reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead. It’s coming to an end, regardless of what the groundhogs in Pennsylvania say.

Based on current measurements in the upper basin of the Colorado River where most of the water is generated, there is a very real possibility that the snow-water equivalent is tracking lower than 2002, which was the lowest year in recorded history.

“We do know that the runoff is not linear to what the snow-water equivalent is showing, but it is pretty alarming that we are tracking at this point in 2002, or actually a little bit below 2002,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources.

The Bureau of Reclamation has declared that there is almost no chance of a shortfall in water delivered from Lake Mead next year. But there is certainly a chance that the forecast may change, Buschatzke said.

The forecast is based on the release of 9 million acre-feet from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Normal release is 8.23 million acre-feet. If the unregulated inflow gets to a certain low level, that 9 million acre-feet release won’t occur.

The result would be close to a 10-foot elevation drop at Lake Mead.

Many stakeholders along the Colorado River felt that last winter’s above-average snowpack created a “comfort zone” regarding finalizing a drought contingency plan.

They need to address what is happening with the hydrology and the increasing risks of not just short-term impacts on Lake Mead, but potentially going into a shortage by 2019, Bushatzke said.

“If we can’t conserve enough water in Lake Mead to make up the difference, that will be a high bar to achieve between mid-April and the end of July, which would be the time period in which we’d have to do that conservation,” the ADWR director said.