This year, record low snowpack, dismal river flows, and above-average temperatures across the West led to fires, extreme drought, and threats of water shortage. Officials with the group Western Resource Advocates are tracking snowpack trends across the region and have studied the impacts of climate change on water resources.
Over the last half-century, many Western states have experienced decreases in the proportion of winter precipitation falling as snow and an increase in the proportion falling as rain, which runs off more quickly. This is primarily due to increased temperatures, driven by climate change.
Low snowpack in 2018 led to historically low stream flows in several major Western rivers, including the Colorado, Yampa and the Rio Grande.
“Low snowpack harms multi-billion-dollar outdoor recreation and tourism economies in Western states, including Colorado and Utah,” said Western Resource Advocates in a statement. “Low snowpack also stresses municipal water supplies; the Colorado River, with its headwaters high up in the Rocky Mountains, contributes to drinking water supplies for upwards of 40 million people.
Trends show that in Lake Powell, which receives the vast majority of its water from snowpack, water levels are not rebounding sufficiently even after periods of above-average snowpack. This is a new trend beginning in the 21st century.”
Despite receiving some above-average snowfall in places throughout the Colorado River Basin, the Southwest continues to experience drought conditions. The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor confirms the Four Corners is facing exceptional drought, noted Western Resource Advocates.