LAY OF THE LAND
It’s not your imagination: the winter months have delivered a tremendous wallop of moisture, helping erase drought across most of the West. But will it be enough to overcome years of drought and replenish reservoirs that are reaching dangerously low levels? To answer that, let’s start by looking at the good news in western states.
Good Snowpack News for Many Western States
Colorado: Statewide snowpack is an impressive 127% of the median from 1991 to 2020, according to SNOTEL data of March 13. Even better, the Colorado Sun reported that “the snow-water equivalent — the amount of liquid water in snow — was at 147% of the historical average in the Gunnison Basin, and 136% of the average in the Yampa and White basins.” Want more good news? That number was 149% of average in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins. And there’s an added bonus of all that snow: A number of ski resorts have chosen to extend their seasons.
Utah: The state’s Department of Natural Resources reported that state snowpack is “above average for this time of year and higher than our median peak last. Typically, our snowpack peaks around April … this year we reached 80% snowpack before mid-January. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) reports we are guaranteed an above-normal snowpack. (It currently sits at 169% of average.) While these numbers are encouraging, experts are cautious in predicting our spring runoff this early.” Also uncertain: if all this runoff will help the Great Salt Lake, which has been receding in recent years.
Montana: The Whitefish Pilot just reported that “while this winter in Northwest Montana has not been significantly snowy, it has been long … with 109 consecutive days since Flathead Valley residents last saw bare ground on Nov. 20, 2022. That streak is in the top-10 all time.” That said, “Northwest Montana’s mountain snowpack percentages are mostly trending near normal for this time of year.”
Wyoming: State snowpack is above average across most basins. The Gillette News Record reported NRCS data showing low-elevation snowpack averaged about 118% of normal in early March, outpacing 2022 (86%) and 2021 (90%). The paper noted many reservoirs are beginning to fill, but those along the Snake River Basin “remain extremely low — an average of 31%.” Drought conditions across the state should “inch toward improvement,” Jeff Goats of NRCS told the paper, depending on how quickly the snow melts.
Idaho: Higher-than-usual stream flows could bring much of the state out of drought, the Idaho Statesman reported, citing statewide snowpack “above normal,” with particularly good snowpack in Southern and Eastern Idaho. Erin Whorton, a water supply specialist at NRCS, told the Statesman.
The Northwest: Recent storms in the Cascades have brought Oregon’s snowpack to near normal levels, while snow basins in the southeast part of the state are above normal, hydrologist Matt Warbritton told KGW. In Washington, the state’s Department of Ecology reported that “statewide snowpack is slightly above 100% of normal, with runoff forecasted to be just shy of average.” However, “lurking beneath the snowpack are soil-moisture deficits resulting from a dry spring and summer… causing runoff forecasts to be revised downward in some basins.
California Facing Drought Despite Record Snowpack
The news is especially encouraging in the Golden State, which has suffered from drought for years. A series of atmospheric rivers have snowpack for the Sierras statewide at an incredible 223% of average, its biggest level in 30 years and well above last year’s paltry 57% of average snowpack. And statewide snowpack is over 200% of normal. Thanks to that , half of the state is free from drought and water restrictions have ended for nearly 7 million people.
Despite all this good news, California has not put drought behind it. The Associated Press reported, for example, that U.S. Drought Monitor data shows “low groundwater levels remain a persistent problem … (and) the latest survey found that moderate or severe drought covers about 49% of the state, while just 17% of the state is free of drought or a condition described as abnormally dry. The remainder is still abnormally dry.”
“Clearly the amount of water that’s fallen this year has greatly alleviated the drought,” climate scientist Daniel Swain told the AP about California. “It has not ended the drought completely but we’re in a very different place than we were a year ago.”
The same is true for the region. For example, projections for the water level at Lake Mead show a slight improvement over the past two months, but the massive reservoir is still 183 feet lower than when full. And 8NewsNow reported that if current projections hold, the lake will fall to a new all-time low sometime between now and the end of April … (and) Bureau of Reclamation projections for 2024, “show the lake level dropping again by another 17 feet by September.
Colorado Public Radio spoke with climate researcher Brad Udall, who cautioned against getting too excited by the results of one winter after more than two decades of megadrought. “We would need five or six years at 150% snowpack to refill these reservoirs, and that is extremely unlikely.”
HAVE YOU HEARD? Our Land Bulletin Podcast recently delved into the topic, Renewable Energy As a Layered Asset. Learn more about that possible revenue stream and consider checking out other podcasts such as How Do We Know What A Ranch is Worth? and Ranch Marketing 101. Listen now.
GOING DOWN: Cattle inventories are at historic lows and will drop more. James Mitchell, a livestock economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, recently told Talk Business & Politics that the combination of drought and a hay shortage in 2022 resulted in many ranchers deciding to liquidate herds. “Have we found the bottom? No,” Mitchell said. “It will be 2025 until we see any significant expansion on a national level. I don’t think people are quite done selling cows.”
MUSSEL WORK: You might say ‘It’s just one tiny mussel.’ But an aquatic biologist will tell you that’s a big deal in the West – as in, it will take five years of work before they can declare the Colorado reservoir where that mussel was found clear of the threat posed by this highly invasive species. Read more.
Lay of the Land is a monthly column by Ken Mirr, the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group, that highlights news of the West impacting the ranch lifestyle. Have a question about the West? Email him at Ken@MirrRanchGroup.com.