Early season snowpack looks promising for drought-stressed rivers

Jan 21, 2014

2014 hasn't brought much snow for the western half of the U.S. so far. But there are a few pockets on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide showing above average levels.
Credit PRISM Climate Group/Oregon State University

Midwest farmers that depend on recently drought-stressed rivers like the Platte, Republican, Niobrara, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi received some good news this week, along with Rocky Mountain skiers.

USDA forecasters announced that water supplies are projected to be tight the rest of 2014 west of the Continental Divide. But to the east, the snowpack situation is looking better than it has in years. That bump in additional moisture will affect everyone from farmers to water managers to municipal leaders to fishermen.

Northern Colorado has been deluged with snow this winter. Storm after storm has delivered, leaving river basins for the South and North Platte well above average percent for the amount of precipitation received so far this water year, which began Oct. 1.

The Arkansas River basin, with headwaters high up in the mountains near Leadville, Colo., looks promising too. The Arkansas has been dealt exceptionally dry weather since 2011. The drought the following year stressed the river even further.

Staying on the eastern half of the Continental Divide, eastern Wyoming is snowy too. That’s a big improvement from one year ago when much of the state’s eastern slope was designated as being in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.

Further up the Divide, eastern Montana, too, has seen above average snowpack. The Missouri River gets its start in the mountains there, before snaking across the Great Plains.

Jump across the Continental Divide and the situation is more dire.

California is coming off its driest year on record. The first part of January hasn’t delivered much snow, and water managers are worried there won’t be enough to go around for the state’s agricultural regions. The drought has reached such epic proportions that religious leaders are asking congregations to pray for rain.

While northern Colorado is sitting pretty, the southern half of the state could be in for some trouble if spring snow storms don’t roll through. It takes a long time to move past a multi-year drought, as farmers along the Arkansas River on Colorado’s eastern plains will tell you. Dust storms were kicked up in high winds at Christmas-time outside La Junta.

Conditions aren’t nearly as bad in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, an agricultural powerhouse, but could devolve quickly. Farmers in the traditionally dry region are paying close attention.