U.S. Water News Online
DENVER -- There is an unusual quiet in city parks here
these days. Soccer fields stand unused and golf courses that normally
are open in winter have closed. With the exception of scavenging
crows, birds aren't heard often.
They are all signs of a dry winter that is failing to ease record
drought conditions across the West. Every Western state from Colorado
to the West Coast is experiencing some degree of drought.
The worst conditions are in extreme southwestern California, the
eastern half of Nevada, virtually all of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming,
a portion of south-central Idaho near the Montana border and the
southern half of Montana. Colorado is coping with the worst drought
since record-keeping began in the 1890s.
The snowpack, which supplies 70 percent or more of the surface
water in most Western states, was between 60 percent and 80 percent
of average throughout the West as of the end of January. In
California the snowpack provides about 35 percent of the surface
El Nino, unusual warming in the Pacific, may come to the rescue of
the southern half of the region, at least temporarily and earlier
than expected, said climatologist Klaus Wolter of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.
He had predicted that it would not have much impact until March or
April. He said it could start in February.
But while spring storms will be critical to decisions on how stiff
water rationing will be this summer, Wolter said the storms will not
erase a drought that has been building for years.
Cities are making contingency plans.
Metropolitan Denver cities have ordered golf courses closed and
declared off-limits some recreation fields. Winter bans on outdoor
watering could be extended into spring.
Las Vegas is imposing some watering restrictions and Phoenix is
asking customers to voluntarily cut water use by 5 percent.
In Southern California, water managers have been ordered by the
Interior Department to stop taking more than their share of water
from the Colorado River. Water agencies are in the process of
approving plans to subsidize plants that would desalinate sea water.
Northwestern states, in most El Nino years, see less precipitation
than normal. In Washington and Oregon, electricity prices may rise
because a low snowpack would mean less runoff for power-generating
In Montana, the state's cattle and calf numbers are at their
lowest level in 11 years. Ranchers have had to cut their herds
because of poor grazing conditions.
Gary Beach, Wyoming's Water Quality Division administrator, has
warned towns along the North Platte and Little Snake rivers ``to do
some serious drought planning in case they run out of water this
Bird watcher Hugh Kingery usually sees five or six Townsend
Solitaires around his suburban Denver home. ``This month, we are only
seeing one, and only once in a while,'' he said.
He says the Townsend Solitaire depends on berries on the juniper
tree. The trees are surviving the drought, but are bereft of berries.
Numbers of the lark bunting, the state bird, are down because
prairie grass didn't grow enough to support breeding. A Christmas
survey in the Denver area found the bird population was only 72
percent of average, a figure that nearly mirrors the state's
snowpack, he said.
Bird numbers have declined at least 10 percent throughout the West
after five years of abnormally low rainfall, says the National
Aububon Society. Crows, expert scavengers, are flourishing.
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