The Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park is covered in snow on May 13, 2023 looking southeast towards the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The 2023 winter snowpack in the area was above the normal average and many are hoping it will bring some relief from the historic drought in the Colorado River Basin. Experts warn, however, that more than a year of extra rainfall is needed to ease the West’s long-running drought. The aerial photography flight was provided by LightHawk. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Water flows from the western slope of the Colorado and into tributaries of the Colorado River, restoring reservoirs throughout the American West to perhaps a semblance of their former glory.

Cities, farmers, ranchers and water resources managers breathe a sigh of relief for the crisis avoided this summer thanks to the abundant snowfalls this winter.

A major crisis appears to have been averted, at least for now, water experts say. But winter snow and spring rains aren’t enough to wash away the bigger picture that the Colorado River is still draining year after year.

A good water year can be followed by several dry years, said Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University. The drying trend has been so strong over the past two decades that scientists no longer call it a drought. Instead they say this is the driest future the West has to get used to. And state, federal and tribal officials must continue to look for ways to use less water from the Colorado River.

It’s a whole new world out there, Gimbel said. This is a great year but it’s not enough to get us out of this situation.

With above-average snowpack on the western slope of Colorado, which is home to the headwaters of the Colorado River, reservoirs throughout the west are filling higher than in recent years. The country’s two largest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, would need to see enough water to avoid worst-case scenarios, including losing electricity-generating capacity at their dams or even suffering infrastructure damage, Gimbel said.

Paired with that water comes a tentative deal that would cut water usage in Arizona and California, the two biggest-using rivers, and Nevada over the next three years, Gimbel said. The upstream states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are currently studying that proposal, which could be enacted later this year.

To consider current conditions in the Colorado River Basin, imagine a person who just lost their job and their health insurance, said Rhett Larson, a water law professor at Arizona State University. They had a heart attack and the bank is also foreclosing their house. But then they go to a casino and win $5,000 on slots.

That extra cash is a nice boost, just like the heavy snowfall this winter, Larson said.

But it means nothing to your long-term future and hasn’t taught you anything about a management strategy, Larson said.

While the extra water and interim plan could last in the reservoir a couple of years, Gimbel said states, cities, tribal officials and other water managers need to use that time to strike a long-term deal. . They must reduce their water consumption forever and better adapt to a dwindling river.

Many water-saving strategies will focus on the agricultural industry, which uses the vast majority of water from rivers. They include more efficient irrigation techniques, allowing fields to lie fallow or switch to crops that use less water. Many of these ideas could drive up costs at the grocery store for everything from leafy greens to beef and dairy. And they could mean that some products might even become less widely available.

Cities and states can also implement water recycling or sustainability programs. These include reusing certain water sources or even replacing grassy meadows across the West with native plants that use less water.

Water managers in the reservoir also need to reconsider how best to divide the river going forward, especially as states like Arizona and California are consistently using more than their legal quota.

Those conversations are already happening, Larson said. But they are much more complicated than the current interim arrangement.

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