A look at this year’s snowpack. (Courtesy photo)

Like much of the West, the San Juans are experiencing an epic snowpack this winter. Numerous heavy powder days are boosted by the opening of the new Lift 9. Around Telluride, snowpack is currently at 119 percent of the 30-year average for the sites of Lizard Head, Red Mountain Pass and Mineral Creek. Several basins in western Colorado already exceeded normal peak values with the snow accumulation season still underway.

But one good snow year is not enough to help end Colorado’s yearslong drought, especially at the current rate of water usage.

For over 20 years, the 40 million people and agriculture systems who rely on the Colorado River Basin have used more water than the natural supply. Large reservoirs, particularly Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been able to sustain this water consumption, but the reservoirs’ supplies are dropping every year.

“The problem is now that we've drained a bank account. We can’t keep spending at the rate that we have been in the last 20 years,” Jack Schmidt, Utah State University watershed sciences professor, told the Daily Planet.

Schmidt has devoted nearly 40 years to research of river systems, focused on the Colorado River, its tributaries and the Grand Canyon.

At the current rate of water use, the Colorado River Basin would need several years of above average snowfall to match water demand.

“We would need to repeat this six more years in a row to refill Powell and Mead. That isn’t happening,” Schmidt said.

Drought cost the southwest region, which includes Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, $1.72 billion in 2022, according to a NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information report. In 2007, federal officials established interim guidelines to address water shortages in the Colorado River Basin and coordinate operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

These guidelines would require certain states to reduce water consumption if the reservoirs drop below a certain level. But Schmidt called the interim guidelines “inadequate” as they did not work to reduce states’ water use.

“The only solution is to reduce consumptive use to match the long-term average supply,” he said. “This is a 20-plus year emergency. We have had adequate warning for a long time that this was coming.”

The heavy snowpack does help local systems. Although February did not see quite as much snow as January, precipitation in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins was still 131 percent of the average, according to a USDA Colorado Water Supply Outlook Report, which could help restore local water to basins with large deficits. Water flow is forecasted to be 124 percent of normal seasonal volume.

“This big snow year is really going to help small local reservoirs,” Schmidt said. “But it's not going to come close to filling Powell and Mead because we took Powell and Mead so low.”

Above average snowpack does help increase spring streamflow, which could provide relief to local ecosystems experiencing drought.

“This is an encouraging place to be from a water supply standpoint for these portions of the state that have had several years of below normal streamflow runoff,” Karl Wetlaufer, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) hydrologist, wrote.

On the environmental side, conservationists are working to improve forest health to adapt to both drought and heavy precipitation. One goal is to make forests “more resilient to uncontrollable stressors,” such as high snowmelt, increased wind events or shorter growing seasons. This is known as “biomimicry.”

“Biomimicry creates resilient systems because we're following evolution and Mother Nature is our best teacher,” Casey Harrison, a Montrose-based resource conservationist at USDA, told the Planet. “We can't really control how much snow we're going to get, unfortunately, but we can have some impact on how those forests can respond. Naturally resilient, sustainable, self-perpetuating forests can respond to those droughts properly.”

Water availability is one problem, but many of the challenges for local forests come from human activity.

“In western Colorado, in general, our forests are overstocked due to lack of disturbance,” Harrison said.

When people introduced grazing practices in Colorado, it changed the fire patterns in the area. There are fewer surface fires burning through grasses and underbrush, which affects the fire “disturbance regime” in upper elevation forests.

Another issue is the substantial erosion caused by agricultural practices. Soils from agricultural areas get lifted up into the sky during spring wind events and deposited onto the snow. These deposits caused by erosion then cause the snow to melt more quickly and lead to more sublimation, decreasing the amount of snow that actually transforms into streamflow.

“Instead of going into our groundwater and going into our snowmelt supply, it just goes back up into the atmosphere,” Harrison said.

To better protect local environmental systems, Harrison encouraged people to visit their local NRCS office for help managing land, or developing conservation and forest management plans.

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part story regarding snowpack and drought. The second story will appear in the Sunday edition of the Daily Planet.