New Mexico

Snow-melt fills Rio Grande, other rivers in the Southwest U.S.

DENVER, Colorado - A welcome surge of melting snow is pouring out of the Rocky Mountains and into the drought-stricken rivers of the southwestern U.S., fending off a water shortage but threatening to push rivers over their banks.

Last winter brought above-average snowfall to much of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, so an abundance of snow-melt is rushing into the Rio Grande, the Colorado River, and other waterways after a desperately dry 2018.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," said Greg Smith, a hydrologist with Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There's this big sense of relief this year that we've kind of rebounded."

Colorado was blanketed by 134% of its normal snowfall last winter. Utah was even better, at 138%. Wyoming peaked at 116%.

That will put so much water into the Colorado River that Lake Powell, a giant reservoir downstream in Utah and Arizona, is expected to rise 50 feet this year, said Marlon Duke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Powell and dozens of other reservoirs.

The news is also good for the Rio Grande, which flows from Colorado through New Mexico and then along the Texas-Mexico border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Elephant Butte, a massive reservoir on the Rio Grande in New Mexico, had dropped as low as 10% of capacity, but it could reach 30% this year, said Carolyn Donnelly, a water operations supervisor for the Bureau of Reclamation.

"Given last year, which was really one of the lowest years on record, it's been a complete turnaround," she said.

Besides replenishing reservoirs — a boon to cities and farms that depend on them — the surging rivers mean good rafting conditions, but some sections are so wild that guides are avoiding them.

Weather and climate experts also note that it's too early to declare the Southwest's two-decade-long drought over because wet years sometimes provide only temporary relief from prolonged dry spells.


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