Can Lack of Snow in Colorado River Basin Lead to a More Sustainable Path?

Near Berthoud Pass, CO, elevation ~11,000’ – March 26, 2012


High temperature records in March have fallen across the country, and here in the higher elevations of the Colorado River Basin the winter has been unusually warm and dry.  March is typically a month of big snow storms, anticipated by Rocky Mountain skiers for excellent conditions.

This year’s thin snowpack has people on the chairlifts wondering:  ‘where’s the snow?’

As evidenced by this chart depicting snowpack, 2012 is on a course to be the dry year of record at Berthoud Pass, high in the Colorado River headwaters:

Photo: Berthoud Summit snow chart
Snow data from NOAA’s Colorado River Forecast Center depicting the 1981-2010 snow-water equivalent average, median, maximum, and minimum (in inches), as well as this year’s level (green line).


Because the snow melts and becomes stream flow, what’s been troubling skiers will soon be troubling water managers and anyone who cares about the rivers of the Colorado Basin.

A decade ago, the Colorado experienced a dry year that broke all the records, with inflows to Lake Powell just 25 percent of the historic average.  Lake Powell dropped 37 feet over the course of that year, and within three years it had dropped another 64 feet, leaving exposed the infamous “bathtub ring” bleached on the reservoir’s walls, showing where the water had been.

Reservoirs on the Colorado River store more than four times the river’s annual average flow, and during the 2000-201o drought, we were gulping our way through stored water where it was available.

But those dry years also started to change how people think about water management in the Colorado River Basin.  The ink was barely dry on a 2001 agreement allocating ‘surplus’ water to Arizona, California, and Nevada, when all the states in the basin were forced into a discussion about prospective shortages.

The result was a new, ground-breaking agreement that builds flexibility into operations at Lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the basin, and reduces water use as supply diminishes.  By late 2010, it looked like a first-ever declared shortage was just around the corner, and negotiations with Mexico heated up in the hope that our neighbor to the south could join U.S. efforts to manage demand in times of drought.

Thanks to abundant snowpack in 2011, crisis was avoided.  But what happens if 2012 stays warm and the dry years continue?

If 2012 kicks off a series of dry years similar to those of 2000-2010, shortages will be unavoidable in the Lower Basin.  Worse, the impact of another extended drought would be magnified by the fact that reservoirs in the basin are only 64 percent filled today, while they were completely full when the last drought started.

An extended drought starting in 2012 could drain so much water from Lake Mead as to threaten the ability of Las Vegas to access what amounts to 90 percent of its developed supply, just as it could threaten the ability of the Upper Basin to make downstream deliveries required under the Colorado River Compact.  These would be untenable impacts, and certain to cause legal chaos and confusion unless the federal government, states, water users and other stakeholders start to work now on additional agreements that implement more conservation and allow more flexibility in times of extended drought.

Until fairly recently, water managers using Colorado River supplies would look to divert more water from the river.  Because annual use of Colorado River water has reached (even perhaps exceeded) the annual average supply, today’s central challenges for water managers are to manage demands (through conservation) and to help facilitate more flexibility in the use of the basin’s water, such as voluntary markets, while avoiding economic and environmental damages.  For many (but certainly not all) water managers in the basin, it’s a new – and difficult – way of doing business.

The bare mountaintops of 2012, and the possibility of more years like it, are certain to make the jobs of water managers more challenging.  Scarcity will increase competition for water, and prices are sure to rise.  But it’s also possible that this year’s dry conditions, coming so soon after the dry conditions of 2002, will continue to shift public awareness and opinion towards more support of these new ways.

As those of us who depend on the Colorado River increasingly come to recognize that extreme variability is ‘the new normal,’ water managers could find a public more willing to adapt.  We need an honest discussion about the trade-offs we face, and the opportunities to do more with the water we already have.


Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund.



Meet the Author
Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund. She works with Colorado River water users throughout the Colorado River basin—including seven states in the United States and two in Mexico—to develop practical programs to restore river habitats and to dedicate water to environmental resources. She has worked as a park ranger and a Congressional aide, and has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University.