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Snowfall is below average in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. That's bad news for the Colorado River

Last year, the drought on the Colorado River was eased some by generous rain and snowfall throughout the Southwest. But, so far this winter, we’re seeing what some are calling a "snow drought." 

Snow totals across the West are lower than average for this time of year, ski resorts are making snow to get skiers on the slopes, and all of it has big implications for the shrinking Colorado River, which flows to about 40 million people across the Southwest. 

Alex Hager, who covers the Colorado River basin for KUNC, joined The Show to tell us more about it.

Full interview

Begin with the numbers here for us, Alex. Like, what does it look like so far when we say that these averages are lower than normal?

ALEX HAGER: Well, it's a, it's a little meager. So when we're talking about the amount of snow that falls in the west as it pertains to the Colorado River, most of what we're looking at is in the state of Colorado. Two thirds of the water in the Colorado River starts as snow in Colorado, and right now it's not looking great. Most regions of that state are about 70% ,60% of average for this time of year.

And if we look at the other two states that account for the, the vast majority of the water that starts to snow in the Colorado River, Utah and Wyoming, they're looking pretty much the same that has left us with a year that is well below normal. I'm looking at a chart right now of the last two decades, like this year is either the bottom or one of the bottom three years in terms of, you know, over the last 20 years, you know, amount of snow for Jan. 4.

And as you're sort of describing there, like the, the water in the Colorado River, the supply of water there has mostly to do with the snowfall up north in the mountains, less so to do with whether or not we get rain down here?

HAGER: That's right. That's right. Most of the water in the Colorado River starts as snow. A lot of it stays snow into the spring and kind of slowly melts off, giving water managers this reliable base of kind of trickle that fills up the major reservoirs and, and because of that, very little of the water in the system falls as rain, especially, you know, water falling as rain in Arizona and Nevada.

If you do look at the few areas that have snow in Arizona, they are also well below average, there's just a few measuring sites and they're showing about, you know, 60% for the highest and 25% for the lowest.

So, so scientists, water managers, climatologists, they're watching this snowfall very closely. We want those ski resorts to be full of snow. Are they concerned at this point?

HAGER: Ski resorts are concerned to an extent. I talked with an, an industry analyst who, who kind of studies these things. And he said, look, you know, although there is pretty limited terrain opening, especially at this point in the year when a lot of your trips are, you know, families coming for the holidays, they've had these trips booked for months.

As long as they are spending some lifts, folks are going to come, regardless, they've already booked their flights, they've already booked their hotels. And because of the way that the ski industry has been changing, a lot of ski resorts and the companies that own them rely more on kind of presales of season passes.

So regardless of whether or not people are actually coming, regardless of whether people are skiing, regardless of whether they're enjoying their skiing, those companies have been selling passes that, you know, people are already kind of locking in over the summer and fall. There was a recent earnings call from Vale Resorts where they said they expect 73% of their skier visits worldwide to come from season pass holders.

So if you know, a person with an epic pass or an icon pass or someone who has some sort of season ticket to a ski resort, they are contributing to a trend that means less anxiety for ski resorts. Even when the snow is bad.

Even when the snow is bad. Not, not the fresh powder they want, right. What about scientists and water managers? Like, is there time for, you know, the snowfall to, to, to come back to average, to, to help out here and, and even things out in the next couple of months?

HAGER: There's definitely time. The scientists who study this do not do an awful lot of hand wringing if there is a dry December. It's not a great start. It has them kind of ready to be on edge. But, you know, I talked to the assistant state climatologist here in Colorado, and she said it's really dependent on what we see in January and February. There is a lot of time to make it up. We will need a pretty significant January and February with a lot of snow to actually start closing that gap.

Unfortunately, because of climate change, that is less likely to happen, it is warmer and oftentimes drier. And so the probability that we are able to make that up in a couple of months is relatively low, but there is definitely still a chance.

So then the big question is what if it doesn't, right? Like what if January and February are low snowfall totals, too. What does that do for the water supply for the Colorado River?

HAGER: Well, we're really looking at how the amount of snow melt and runoff influences major reservoirs in the Colorado River basin. So, you know, we hear a lot about Lake Powell and Lake Mead and yet again, they are kind of the stars of this show. So realistically, we are not in immediate immediate crisis because there was a really good snow year last year, we're not going to run out of water.

There is not going to be sort of a doomsday scenario if we have limited snow, but it is going to make things kind of stressful for the people who manage those reservoirs, especially Lake Powell, which stores water in Utah and northern Arizona. If water dips too low, there, it risks infrastructural damage to the big dam that holds it back. And the hydropower turbines inside that provide electricity to 5 million people.

And so a lot of water managers are mostly focused on keeping water levels high enough to avoid infrastructural damage. That's somewhere around 20% to 30%. And so they might have to do some creative math to take water from other reservoirs and move it down to Lake Powell. But if we have a low snow year, it will introduce some anxiety over how to manage that reservoir.

But ultimately, I expect that that most everyone will be getting the water they expect to get farms and cities from Wyoming down to Mexico.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.