With the entire American West in a snow drought, here’s how the Colorado River is holding up

Last winter’s record-breaking snowpack is keeping the Colorado River Basin afloat.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Colorado River flows next to Kane Creek Boulevard in Moab on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

With precipitation and snowpack falling behind normal levels for this time of year, the 40 million people served by the Colorado River have last year’s wet winter to thank for the Basin’s relative stability.

Right now, the entire American West is struggling with snow drought. Snowpack for the Upper Colorado River Basin — which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — stands at a dismal 57.7% of average as of Jan. 3.

This time last year, snowpack in the region had already reached 130% above average.

Utah gets about 95% of its water supply from snowpack. This winter, while there’s deep snowpack at higher elevations, December’s warmer temperatures have melted the snow at mid- to low elevations.

But Glen Merrill, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, told The Salt Lake Tribune that there are reasons to be optimistic, most of which hinge on last year’s showing.

“Because of last year and how beneficial it was, Lake Powell made a huge jump,” he said. “But we would need four-plus years like last year in a row to fill it back up.”

This year’s is an El Nino winter. That means that warmer surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean pull the global jet stream further south, making for wetter winters in the Southwest and drier conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Latitude-wise, Utah sits in the middle.

So far, northern Utah experienced one storm cycle in early December, and southern Utah has barely seen any snow.

In better news, Utah’s reservoirs stand at 80% full — usually, they’re around 56% full this time of year — and good soil moisture means that this year’s runoff will head efficiently to reservoirs without soaking into the ground.

It’s not too late for the El Niño precipitation to kick in, Merrill said, but it’s difficult to predict what’s coming this spring.

“One good year is one good year, and we can’t get complacent,” Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, told The Tribune. “We can’t count on good years. We have to be prepared for anything.”