It’s been a good year for snow — which bodes well for water negotiations

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, March 25, 2024 - 12:15pm
Updated: Monday, March 25, 2024 - 5:24pm

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Skiers cruise down the slopes at Arapahoe Basin ski area in Colorado on Nov. 13, 2023.
Alex Hager/KUNC
Skiers cruise down the slopes at Arapahoe Basin ski area in Colorado on Nov. 13, 2023.

Spring is officially here, winter is over — but the snow is still coming down in the Colorado mountains, where the Colorado River starts.

It’s been a good year for snowpack up north, and we’ve seen a lot of rain in Phoenix as this El Niño year lives up to its name. 

A lot of snow in the Colorado Mountains isn’t just good news for skiers and snowboarders. It’s also good news for all of us as we rely on the Colorado River for much of our water in the Southwest.

Alex Hager covers the Colorado River for KUNC in Colorado and joined The Show to talk about it.  

Full interview

LAUREN GILGER: So tell us, is this good news?

ALEX HAGER: It is good news. About two-thirds of the river of the Colorado River starts as snow in Colorado. So when we're looking at the future of the water supply, how much pressure is going to be on the Colorado River this summer, we're talking about snow that fell this winter. There's really not much that rain in Phoenix or pretty much anywhere else in the Southwest for that matter can do to tip the scale. So it is good news for the short term. It kind of does not make a huge difference in terms of the long term Colorado River crisis, but it will buy decisionmakers a little bit of time to try to sort that crisis out.

GILGER: All right, we'll dig into that more in a moment but give us the numbers first. Like, what do we look like? What does it look like when we say, you know, we're seeing a good year for snowpack up in the Colorado mountains?

HAGER: Yeah, snow is measured as a percentage of average. So right now, everything is a little bit above average in Colorado and also Utah where we also see some Colorado River water start as snow. Right now, it's just slightly above average in most of those mountain regions, about, you know, 105% to 110% of normal for the amount of snow that's in the mountains in late March every year.

GILGER: OK. And more snow is on the horizon, it sounds like?

HAGER: Yes, it does appear that we will be having more coming this week and I'm looking out my window right now. I'm not in the mountains here in Fort Collins, but we got a couple inches last night. So winter is definitely in force in Colorado.

GILGER: All right. All right. So as you talked about at the beginning there, this matters a lot for the health of the Colorado River. How much snow happens up in the north in the, in the mountains up there in Colorado. Two-thirds of the river starts as snow pack in those mountains. We always refer to the Colorado River as as shrinking, right? Like that, that it's in crisis. Does this make a dent?

HAGER: It makes a small dent. The state of Western water is pretty dire. In the Colorado River basin, we have seen a long term drying trend going back to the year 2000, meaning that it is going to take more than just one wet winter to turn things around. However, because the crisis has gotten so severe, a lot of decisions are being made on a year-to-year basis. The amount of water that's in the nation's two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, is record low and because of that, it's being very tightly managed year to year just to make sure that there's enough to keep sending through the pipes that allow water to pass through the Glen Canyon Dam. The hydropower generators that are inside that dam, they need very specific levels of water and it alleviates some of the pressure on decisionmakers to, you know, really focus on managing the reservoir just this year.

In the grand scheme of things, it does not fix the Colorado River crisis, but it might create a little bit of space for the people in charge of deciding how we share Western water to focus less on the year-to-year crisis management at those big dams and focus a little bit more on the big picture of long term. How do we reduce our demand on a resource that's been getting smaller for more than two decades?

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. So let's talk about where those negotiations stand. The last time you were on the show, you were talking about how there are two sort of competing plans between the so called upper basin states and the lower basin states, of which Arizona is one, over how to deal with this and who kind of takes those cuts going forward. Does this, you know, give them some breathing room to come to come together somehow?

HAGER: You know, hopefully it does. We have seen in past years that negotiations are a little tense and maybe a little harder to you know, come to agreement, in years when the pressure is really on due to you know, an immediate history of dry conditions. However, I think the stage we're at in negotiations is a little bit beyond you know, beyond something that's going to be dictated by one wet winter or even one dry winter. We're really in crunch time right now. These two basins, they are on the hook to come up with a new plan for managing the river after 2026, when the current rules expire, and the federal government says we'd really like you to get working on that now. If you could get us an agreement before the end of this year, before the end of 2024, that would be best, just in case the current administration does not hang on to the White House after this election.

So they're under pressure to finish this quickly. And I think with the timeline that they're dealing with and with the scale of just how difficult it will be to come to agreement between these two sides that have been going at it for the better part of a century. This winter is not going to have a ton of influence.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. How many years are we talking about when we say like we would need a lot of years of above average snowfall to really make a difference here? This is a, it sounds like a trend that is not expected to reverse.

HAGER: Yeah. So what I, you know what I just said is that we have the snowpack totals are around 105% to 110% of average. I've talked to scientists who say we would need 150% of average for something like four to six consecutive years to really erase this problem. So when we're talking about the Colorado River crisis, statistically, there is virtually no chance that it will get fixed by snow alone. It is going to require reductions to water demand since the supply is likely not coming back to the way that it was before 2000.

GILGER: OK. So good news, but only to a certain extent.

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