U.S. Water News Online
RENO, Nev. -- From the brittle hillsides of Southern
California to the drying fields of Idaho, from Montana to New Mexico,
a relentless drought is worsening across most of the West where a
once-promising snowpack is shrinking early, water supplies are
dwindling and the threat of wildfires is already on the rise.
``Most of the West is headed into six years of drought and some
areas are looking at seven years of drought,'' said Rick Ochoa,
weather program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in
Arizona faces its worst drought on record.
New Mexico farmers are bracing for dramatic reductions in water
supplies, and in parts of southeast Idaho, the only farmers who will
get water this summer might be those with water rights dating to the
On the edge of the Sierra, lingering drought is pitting residents
against the Reno country club that hosts a national golf tournament
in a battle over water from a mountain creek.
``Some part of the West has been in a state of drought since the
winter of 1995-96,'' said Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist for
the Desert Research Institute's Western Regional Climate Center in
``For the last year or two, it has extended all the way from the
Mexican border to Canada pretty consistently,'' he said.
An unusually warm, dry March melted snowpack and increased
wildfire threats, especially in southeast Oregon, half of Arizona,
most of New Mexico and parts of Colorado.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service forecasts the
potential for water restrictions and widespread crop and pasture
losses in central Nevada, southern Idaho, most of south-central
Montana and eastern and southwestern Utah.
``Drought? What drought? It rained here a couple of years ago,''
said Dick Larsen, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Water
He's straining for humor because most of southern Idaho is in a
category the U.S. Agriculture Department calls ``exceptional
drought,'' along with parts of southwest Montana.
That's a step worse than ``extreme drought,'' which the USDA says
best describes the condition of other parts of Montana, Utah,
Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado.
Those states are heavily dependent on melting snow for water
supplies -- snow that has rapidly disappeared the past month across
Snowpack showed half or less the normal March precipitation level
in the Intermountain West, Southwest, Northern Rockies, central
Idaho, Oregon and California. The driest basins were in central
Arizona, where less than 70 percent of normal seasonal precipitation
Most of the West was ``sitting reasonably well'' at the end of
February, Redmond said.
``A lot of places had near-average snowpack. But we had one of the
warmest Marches on record across and we didn't get any precipitation
almost anywhere in the West,'' he said.
``So not only did we not add to our supply in March, which is
usually a very healthy month, but the temperature was so warm that
the melting started early,'' he said.
Significant snowmelt into the Merced River at Yosemite National
Park in California began on its earliest date in 87 years, Redmond
``The situation has been repeated all over the West,'' he said.
In Idaho, ``the further south and east you go, the worse it
gets,'' Larsen said.
One of the hardest hit areas is in the southeast corner of the
state at Bear Lake, which provides water to parts of Idaho, Wyoming
``They are looking at historic low levels of water. It's entirely
possible there will be no irrigation water available for farmers down
there,'' Larsen said.
Arizona is on the verge of its worst drought in recorded history,
according to John Sullivan, associate general manager of the Salt
River Project's water group.
For nine years running, precipitation and runoff into the Phoenix
area's reservoirs have been far less than normal, and the state has
recorded four of its five driest years of the century in the past 10
years, hydrologist Charlie Ester said.
Two-thirds of New Mexico is in severe drought condition or worse,
said Dan Murray, water supply specialist for the USDA's conservation
service in Albuquerque, N.M.
``In the northern part of the state, we get our peak snowpack
about April 1 but this year it pretty much peaked out about the first
week of March.''
That could mean a shortage of the water New Mexico shares with
Texas and especially hurt the city of Sante Fe, which gets much of
its water from the Santa Fe River, Murray said.
The warmest March since 1934 was recorded in Reno, where residents
have asked the state engineer to re-evaluate the Montreux Golf &
Country Club's use of water from Galena Creek. They don't care about
the PGA Tour and the Reno-Tahoe Open. They say there won't be enough
water for their pastures.
``You are going to have a new range war, the farmers and ranchers
against the golf courses,'' Rick Taras, president of the Big Ditch
Co., told the Reno-Gazette Journal.
In contrast, some parts of the West -- western Oregon, Washington
and Northern California west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada --
have near normal snowpack.
The overall water supply situation in California statewide is
``not great, but it's OK,'' said Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys
for the California Department of Water Resources.
There's more concern about moisture in the soils and forests and
the potential for another year of raging wildfires.
``In that respect, Southern California is not doing particularly
well. They've had quite a few dry years in a row and certainly didn't
do much catch-up this season,'' Gehrke said.
The National Interagency Fire Center identified three areas with
the greatest fire risks -- Southern California, the Four Corners
states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and southern Utah, and the
Intermountain region east of the Cascade Mountains across Idaho and
Big fires already have burned 10,000 acres in Arizona and 8,500
acres in Colorado.
``In terms of fire, I think everybody is real nervous,'' said
Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council in
``We had lots of wet weather in Oregon this winter, but we had a
very dry March. If we don't get some April showers, we are going to
have a dry situation with a lot of fuels sitting there,'' he said.
Parts of Nevada, California and Arizona are dependent on water
from the Colorado River system and its two largest reservoirs, Lake
Mead and Lake Powell, which together can hold about 50 million acre
feet but are only about half full.
``They've been really low the last five years. We thought this was
going to be a decent year, but now it's starting to look like that is
not going to be the case,'' Redmond said.
Utah and Montana may have been hardest hit during March, Redmond
``Utah has gone through four or five years of drought already and
they were finally looking at a decent kind of average snow melt, but
now they are looking at one of the worst on record and it all
happened in a month,'' he said.
Likewise, parts of Montana have suffered through the driest
consecutive four years on record and prospects for the year aren't
much above average, he said.
Larsen likened the cumulative effects in Idaho over the years to
``a snake starting to eat its own tail.''
``The snowpack went down, so we had to keep tapping the reservoirs
so that last year we just absolutely emptied our reservoirs,'' he
``The saddest thing about all of this is we can already see next
year's train wreck coming,'' Larsen said.
``Pray for rain. That's about all we can do.''
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