Southwest's Record Snow Brings Drought Relief . . . And Makes Skiers Happy, Too

On a recent sunny afternoon Steve Brown was gliding down a snow covered ski slope in Colorado … without a shirt on. “Oh you know it. Catching maximum rays! You know it, wooh!”

Like many Boulder residents, Brown was taking advantage of late spring storms that have extended ski season at Arapahoe Basin and other resorts for weeks and months longer than usual.

“Whenever it's avail, you know. This is really hard to find anywhere. Just gotta take advantage of every chance you can get. Summer skiing is just unlike anything.”

Brown’s good fortune will soon be shared by millions of people throughout the American Southwest, as the record snowpack melts and flows down mountains into streams that feed the Colorado River.

“Is there anything more important than water in the West?” said Doug Kenny, director of the Western Water Policy Center at University of Colorado Law School, who chuckles when asked how significant the Colorado’s water is. “I mean, when you live in an arid region, when there's only one major river in the southwestern U.S., what could be more important than the Colorado River?”

To put it into perspective, on its journey from the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of California, the Colorado River provides drinking water for some 36 million people in seven American states and another 6 million people in Mexico.

Its water also is used for industry, recreation, the creation of electricity and the irrigation of enough farmland that, if put together, would cover an area larger than the state of Connecticut.

Yet in terms of volume, the Colorado doesn’t even crack the top 20 in terms of the biggest rivers in the country.

Kenny says it should come as no surprise that the Colorado has been fought over for decades.

“Most of the discussions began in the 1920s with the negotiations of… an interstate compact in the 1920s. Since then there've been a series of discussions that sometimes are better described as arguments and fights. There's always somebody mad at somebody. And the stakes are always very high.”

Almost all of the river’s water comes from melted snowpack, and this year’s record amount means a welcome reprieve from region-wide drought and the ongoing tensions between major population centers in California, Nevada and Arizona, and growing metropolitan areas in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.

“There seems to be a cooperative spirit emerging that I haven't seen in the past decade. Because this is a wet year I hear people talking about partnerships, collaboration and all these great words and there's a lot of smiles and it's a very different vibe this year on the river.”

Lakes Powell and Mead, the massive reservoirs created by damning the Colorado, have been extremely low for many years. Because of this year’s boon, Lake Powell is expected to rise by 17 feet, Lake Mead by more than 30. But even such massive inflow will only be enough to bring the two back up to capacity. And while an expected water shortage declaration in California, Nevada and Arizona this year has been delayed until at least 2015, the future of the arid West does not shimmer like water.

“The long-term trends in this basin are problematic (due to) population growth, energy development and things like that,” Kenny explains. “And the trends are for supply to go down primarily due to climate change. So the solution is going to have to be…using water more efficiently, maybe transferring water out of agriculture to the cities, doing some creative and cooperative things.”

But cooperation has not often been a hallmark of what has been called the most legislated, litigated and fought over river in not just America, but the entire world.