Snowpack good east of the Rockies, not west
Snowpack west of the Continental Divide is looking bleak. However, the east side of the divide has snowpack at or above average, better than it has in years.
According to reports by the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS), neither Utah nor Oregon has received enough precipitation to prompt an above-average water forecast to get them out of the current long-term drought. But they are the least of the West’s problems.
On Friday, January 17, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state. Not only are the state’s largest reservoirs and rivers at record lows, the mountains of California are at 20% of normal snowpack levels causing the state’s worst drought since records began 120 years ago.
Midwest farmers acquire their water from rivers including the Platte, Republican, Niobrara, Missouri, and Mississippi, and this water comes from snowpack throughout the Rocky Mountains. The Missouri River, the longest river in North America, begins water supply in the southwestern Montana part of the Rockies, trails to eastern Montana, and through the Great Plains. While the western side of the Rockies is sitting at average to below-average according to the NRCS, the eastern side ranges from average to extremely wet.
Earlier this fall, runoff from winter storm Atlas in the Dakotas ceased the drought conditions of the reservoirs in South Dakota and transferred excess water to the Missouri River.
Farther down the Rocky Mountains, northern Colorado has seen storm after storm, keeping the North and South Platte river basins at solid levels. However, snow has avoided the southwest part of the state recently, bringing the January 1 snowpack levels from 100% of average down to 77% on Tuesday.
It’s too soon to worry about a below-average snowpack, says Rege Leach, a Colorado Division of Water Resources division engineer. We still have February, March, and April to compensate for quick-melting snow and lack of precipitation in southern Colorado. He reassures that even if our snowpack is lower than normal, we have a good water supply.
Rivers emerging from this area of the Rockies are feeling the sting. On January 22, the USDA declared 37 counties in Kansas as "primary natural disaster areas due to recent drought" as well as counties in southwestern Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Conditions and snowpack levels can change quickly as they did in southwestern Colorado. Be looking for snow to continue if the water supplies are to stay at good levels until planting season.