Ideas. Stories. Community.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In The West, Signs In The Snow Warn That A 20-Year Drought Will Persist And Intensify

Researchers with the Long Term Ecological Research station at the Universit of Colorado’s Mountain Research Station on the Niwot Ridge of Colorado’s Indian Peak work on the 2019 snow survey in the Green Lakes Valley, which includes the Arikaree Glacier and provides a substantial portion of Boulder, Colorado’s water supply. The LTER runs a snow survey in the valley every year.
Michael Kodas, InsideClimate News
Researchers with the Long Term Ecological Research station at the Universit of Colorado’s Mountain Research Station on the Niwot Ridge of Colorado’s Indian Peak work on the 2019 snow survey in the Green Lakes Valley, which includes the Arikaree Glacier and provides a substantial portion of Boulder, Colorado’s water supply. The LTER runs a snow survey in the valley every year.

Lack of monsoon rainfall last summer and spotty snowfall this winter combined to worsen the Western drought dramatically in the past year, and spring snowmelt won’t bring much relief. Critical April 1 measurements of snow accumulations from mountain ranges across the region show that most streams and rivers will once again flow well below average levels this year, stressing ecosystems and farms and depleting key reservoirs that are already at dangerously low levels.

As the climate warms, it’s likely that drought conditions will worsen and persist across much of the West. Dry spells between downpours and blizzards are getting longer, and snowpack in the mountains is starting to melt during winter, new research shows. The warming atmosphere may also be suppressing critical summer rains from the western monsoon.

A year ago, when California and Colorado experienced their worst fire seasons on record, drought conditions spanned about half the West, and no areas experienced “extreme” or “exceptional” conditions. But going into this year’s dry season, about 90 percent of the region is now in drought, with 40 percent in those two most severe categories.

At the end of last month, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed exceptional drought spreading across roughly half of Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, and extending up to northern Colorado. Utah was persistently dry from January 2020 through January of this year, with some welcome snow piling up in just the last few weeks, but too little and too late to stop the state’s steady drying. California’s snowpack is about half of average, according to that state’s April 1 snow survey.

“Everything is looking below to much below average,” Cody Moser, senior hydrologist for the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, adding that everyone’s been hoping for a wet spring. “But we’re not holding our breath for something like that.”

Forecasters expect this year’s annual flow into Lake Powell, a key Colorado River reservoir that helps distribute water to 40 million people and vast croplands, will only be around 45 percent of normal.

Other forecasters see little chance for drought-busting storms in April, the last full month of the western wet season. Off the West Coast, a bulge of warm and dry air known as the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” that shifts storms northward is forming in the same general area where it contributed to the extreme drought California experienced from 2012 to 2016. As a result, the outlook for the rest of the month in the state is trending toward “extremely dry.”

New Studies Show Lengthening Dry Spells and Winter Snow Melt

This year’s parched conditions aren’t surprising to climate scientists who study the region. Nearly all recent research suggests that the West is experiencing what climatologists call aridification—decades of drying with rare relief from occasional wet years.

Research published this week by the American Geophysical Union analyzed daily temperature and precipitation readings collected between 1976 and 2019 from 337 weather stations spread from North Dakota and Texas to the West Coast.

The analysis showed that, across the West, the longest dry spells between measurable precipitation are increasing by 2.4 days per decade, while precipitation is declining about 0.09 inches and temperatures are increasing at 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit every 10 years.

Hardest hit is the Desert Southwest, where average dry spells increased by 50 percent—from 31 to 48 days—during the 45-year study period, and total annual precipitation declined by 0.75 inches per decade.

Bill K. Smith, an author of the study from the University of Arizona who studies how drought in the Southwest affects plants, said those trends have accelerated since 2000. The new study and other research shows that changes in the timing and intensity of rainfall are likely to disrupt plant communities, he said. Species that grow quickly after an intense downpour and can survive dry spells in dormancy are likely to replace those needing a steadier supply of moisture.

“It may not necessarily always be a story of desertification, but there will be major shifts in types of ecosystems,” he said. That could lead those “drylands” to emit more carbon dioxide than they take up, which could further speed warming.

More Winter Snowmelt Could Disrupt Ecosystems and Water Management

One reason that less moisture is trickling down from mountains to arid landscapes below is that more snow is melting during winter, when it should be piling up, as shown in another recent study published in Nature Climate Change. That research, led by Keith Musselman, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, is the first to compile a long-term data record from 1,065 automated weather stations in the Western United States and Canada.

One-third of those stations showed that snowmelt is increasing throughout the winter, but especially in November and March. This year, the winter snowpack in Colorado was already in steep decline on April 6, when it’s typically at its peak.

The findings show that the Western snowpack is more sensitive to warming than suggested by the commonly used measurement of the snow’s water content, Musselman said, and more winter snowmelt will complicate water resource planning. Water managers around the West have historically relied on the April 1 snowpack measurements to decide how much water to store or release from reservoirs, and how much will be available for seasonal irrigation.

The findings bolster projections that global warming will disrupt the water cycle that’s been relatively stable for at least the past few hundred years, said snow scientist Jeff Deems, part of the research team at the Western Water Assessment.

“At a basic level, this study helps quantify something you suspected, anecdotally,” he said. “We’ve grown up in a world in which snowpack has been a reliable reservoir, but it’s not that way anymore.”

The research shows that the widely used measurements from snow-sensing stations and manual surveys don’t tell the whole story of how global warming is changing the snowpack, he added.

“We can’t rely on history anymore to tell us what is up there,” said Deems, cofounder of a company that does aerial snow measurements. Keeping up with the rapid changes warming is making to the water cycle requires more emphasis on broad-scale measurements of snow from planes and satellites, he said.

The April 1 snowpack readings worked well in the past, Musselman said, but when you add in new and rapidly changing factors like winter snowmelt, “you’re eroding your predictive capacity.”

Big Impacts Trickle Down From Winter Melting

Early snowmelt can raise winter soil moisture, which could “prime the pump for an extreme response, something like a rain-on-snow flood event,” Musselman said. Wetter cold season soils may also emit more carbon dioxide, and increasing winter runoff can wash more pollution into rivers, worsening water quality, he added.

In Yosemite National Park’s Tuolumne Meadows, Jessica Lundquist, with theMountain Hydrology Research Group at the University of Washington, found that 2017 storms that delivered record-setting snowfall to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains also brought rain and extreme cold temperatures, which formed ice layers within the snowpack that left a “bathtub ring of damage” to trees encased by the ice. Similar frozen layers in the snowpack can also make it harder for animals like bighorn sheep to find food.

Winter rain and snowmelt, combined with extreme temperature swings, can cause more damage to houses and roads when water seeps into small cracks and widens them as it refreezes, crumbling pavement and tearing gutters off homes, she said.

The changes to snowpack and precipitation documented in the recent studies could put some places more at risk of having both extreme floods and droughts within the span of a few months, Oregon State climate scientist Phil Mote said.

Climate models don’t suggest annual precipitation will change that much in the Northwest. But it’s likely that it will come in more intense bursts, including from wetter atmospheric rivers that have longer dry spells between them, as shown by Smith’s work at the University of Arizona.

“Winter storms in a world that’s a few degrees warmer means that, within a few month period, there is a greater likelihood of both winter flooding and summer drought,” Mote said. A 2015 drought cost Oregon agriculture about $700 million and lowered river flows to spur blooms of potentially toxic river algae that challenged municipal water managers, he said. That drought also primed forests for what was then the Pacific Northwest’s most destructive wildfire season.

“A lot of these issues tie back to snowpack in some way,” he said.

One of the clearest impacts of increasing drought, precipitation variability and heat in the West is on forests, said Smith, at the University of Arizona.

“What’s consistent is, the mortality signal is on the rise,” he said. “We know some of the big trees, some particular species, are dying.”

Lani Tsinnajinnie, an assistant professor in community and regional planning at the University of New Mexico, said the recent research helps summarize and confirm observations from around the Southwest, including her home community of Na’Neelzhiin in the easternmost part of the Navajo Nation.

“It helps us better understand the changes we are noticing,” she said, emphasizing that precipitation and runoff seeping into groundwater recharges springs that are important water sources for communities throughout the Southwest. The changes in the snow-water cycle will also affect important plant resources like piñon pines, she added.

“Piñon-Juniper forests are really dependent on winter soil moisture,” she said. “They are in that snow transition zone, and those forests that are more vulnerable to loss of snowpack.” If there’s not enough winter moisture, piñon pine seeds can’t sprout, so the forests don’t regenerate, she added.

“It’s pretty scary for me and for a lot of people here in the Southwest,” she said. “The piñon nuts are part of our diet, part of our informal economy, and we are a little worried and concerned.”

Weak Snowpack Is Deepening Drought From Last Year’s Failed Monsoon

The early melting of the snowpack is not the only factor contributing to this year’s drought, as what water does trickle down from the mountains is being sucked up by soils left parched by the failure of the Western monsoon last summer.

A 2017 study published in Nature Climate Change projected that precipitation from those seasonal thunderstorms could drop by up to 40 percent if the atmosphere continues to warm at its present pace through the end of the century.

Last year, when that rainy season never materialized, some meteorologists joked darkly about the “nonsoon.” The biggest story this year could be “how dry the soil is,” said Jon Meyer, a research climatologist at the Utah Climate Center. Land left dry last summer will have a “sponge effect” on the meltwater that does trickle down from the mountains.

While there were a few weeks of decent precipitation late in the winter, and the worst-case scenario of record-low snow didn’t materialize, the situation for runoff and reservoirs remains dire.

Utah Climate Center models suggest drier times look likely for at least three or four years, but Meyer said he’s not ready to call it a megadrought yet. Still, he said the current 20-year dry spell across the West is having a big impact of water supplies.

“We don’t need a megadrought to have mega-impacts,” he said.

Denver Water engineer Dave Fernandez takes a daily weather reading, tracking new snowfall, temperature and moisture near Dillon Reservoir, a key drinking water source for millions of people around Denver who rely on a steady melt of mountain snow.
Bob Berwyn /
Denver Water engineer Dave Fernandez takes a daily weather reading, tracking new snowfall, temperature and moisture near Dillon Reservoir, a key drinking water source for millions of people around Denver who rely on a steady melt of mountain snow.

Copyright 2021 KUNC

Judy Fahys is KUER's reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, a journalism collaborative that unites six stations across the Mountain West, including stations in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana to better serve the people of the region. The project focuses its reporting on topic areas including issues of land and water, growth, politics, and Western culture and heritage.
Related Content
  • A showdown is looming on the Colorado River. The river’s existing management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The states that draw water from it are about to undertake a new round of negotiations over the river’s future, while it’s facing worsening dry conditions due in part to rising temperatures.
  • When it comes to water in the West, a lot of it is visible. Snow stacks up high in the mountains then eventually melts and flows down into valleys. It’s easy to see how heavy rains and rushing rivers translate into an abundance of available water. But another important factor of water availability is much harder to see.