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Impressive snowpack notwithstanding, drought impacts persist in Nevada


by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

Federal water managers are increasingly optimistic about Nevada’s water outlook due to a handful of storms that dropped several feet of snow, but warn that drought impacts have continued to persist.

Winter is delivering an incredible snowpack to Nevada and surrounding states, setting the state in a good position to meet water demands in the summer.

Most of the annual stream flow in the western United States originates as snowfall that accumulates in the mountains during the winter. As the snowpack accumulates, hydrologists can estimate the runoff that will occur when the snow melts.

Major sources of water for Nevada — including the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Upper Colorado Basin, and Spring Mountains — have accumulated snowpacks well above typical ranges. The Carson and Walker basin snowpacks are poised to jump past 2017’s record setting peak if storms continue to perform as expected. March snowpack in the Upper Colorado Basin has also exceeded its median peak.

Across most of Nevada, monthly precipitation has been greater than normal every month since the start of November, according to the latest data from the U.S Department of Agriculture. And weather forecasts for March predict another month of wet weather.

All indications point to plentiful river flows this spring and summer. Water managers also said prolonged snowmelt into summer should help meet irrigation demand and leave reservoirs with good carryover storage in the fall. 

However, recent studies show that extreme spring heat waves have accelerated melting rates of mountain snowpacks across the West, making water supplies unpredictable. As climate change continues to throttle Nevada, state agencies are bracing for unpredictable circumstances, including record dry years and record wet ones. 

Researchers also warned that one good winter will not be enough to make up for decades of drought.

Southern Nevada experienced a drier February than normal, and water storage in Lake Mead has a long way to go.

Key river channels have also remained dry, including the lower Humboldt River. Colton Brunson, the water Commissioner for the Nevada Division of Water Resources, reported about 35 miles of dry channel with no flow on the Humboldt River.

Still, colder than normal temperatures and rain in Nevada has helped saturate the soils and primed them for healthy water runoff in the future. The only area in the state with below normal soil moisture continues to be the Snake Valley basin in White Pine County.

Water managers predict that snow melt could significantly increase reservoir storage throughout the state in the spring. In the Truckee Basin, stream flow forecasts predict enough water to fill Prosser and Boca reservoirs, and with a few more storms filling Stampede Reservoir may also be possible, according to the report. 

Nevada Current
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