Storms Didn’t Bring The Winter Of Our Drought-Stricken Discontent

The Truckee River as it flows through downtown Reno, Nevada on February 1, 2021 - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Opinion

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves
– Wallace Stevens

In the final days of January, many Westerners exhaled in relief as an atmospheric river gave us the gift of winter. Snow paraded throughout our communities, shimmying down on a bonedry landscape in need of rejuvenation.

From the nine feet that accumulated in the High Sierra to the few inches that fell in places like Las Vegas and St. George, the sight was a welcome one. The snow came at the right time for those of us in California, Nevada, and Utah. We desperately needed it. In celebration, my social media feeds erupted with snowmen, snow angels, and snowball fights.

Walking through my Reno neighborhood in a calm between last week’s storms, one
homeowner appended a hat and arms to a new front-yard sculpture.

“You’re never too old for a snowman,” she said.

For a short while, at least, the precipitation gave me a respite from worrying about the next fire season, the effect of snowpack on ecosystems and the strife for water managers, farmers and others who need to meet the human demands of their communities.

However, we are far from transcending what has been a decades-long period of drought – and more than a century of increased aridity. Despite Mother Nature’s benefaction to us all, our rivers, aquifers, reservoirs and other water sources are still in need of more. Especially along the Colorado River.

In December, the Bureau of Reclamation predicted for the first time that Lake Mead’s levels
would go below 1,075 feet – a key benchmark in Colorado River management. The Bureau’s predictions mean that more cuts will be coming to two Colorado River Compact States: Nevada and Arizona. The announcement highlights that we are far from reaching the winter of our drought-stricken discontent. We are far from what people once thought was normal – even though our concept of the ordinary was always flawed.

Today Lake Mead’s elevation stands at about 1,084 feet. A year ago, water levels were about 8 feet higher. One big storm won’t reverse trends for the long haul. We need three or four more storms like this one. And then we need it to happen every year. That just isn’t in the forecast.

For the mountains in the Reno-Carson area, the water-year-to-date precipitation is at about 63 percent of normal, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Services. The data imply that to get to an average, we need to fill in a nearly 40 percent gap by the end of the Water Year, October 1. Much of California is in a similar situation.

Geese in the Truckee River on the south side of Wingfield Park in downtown Reno, Nevada on February 1, 2021 – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

As the snow danced down on my home this week, I enjoyed every minute of it. But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think of the future. Recent reports suggest that by the year 2100 the only snow we’ll see in the Sierra Nevada will be above 9,500 feet.

Some of this depends on how quickly we respond to the climate crisis. Other aspects depend on the whimsy of Mother Nature and whether or not she wants to give us a few miracles.

A friend of mine and a preeminent Colorado River wonk, John Weisheit, reminded me of a
quote by Pat Mulroy, the former General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“Prayers and good luck are not how you manage a river basin.”

Weisheit, who is executive director of Living Rivers and is the Colorado Waterkeeper, cited the 2015 “Miracle May” event that filled reservoirs across the west after too few storms graced the nation during the winter.

He also referenced the 2010 La Nina event that wound up washing away a dry period of time, filling the Northern Rockies and Northern Sierra with snow and rain that trickled down into rivers and reservoirs that serve millions of people.

Weisheit described it as an “uncanny” time.

“It really did seem like a combination of wake-up call followed by a relief package from the
creator,” he said.

We may not be as lucky in the future. That is why we must encourage smart management of our water supply and pragmatic limitations on how we grow the populations of our western communities.

Groundwater grabs, dams, and suburban sprawl are not the answer. Neither are schemes to transport water away from rural communities.

But I hold on to hope as does Weisheit.

“I actually think we are going to work through this,” He said. “But it will be a very, very
disturbing transition.”

We can’t guarantee what the future holds. So never hesitate to make that snowman.


Editor’s note: The Sierra Nevada Ally is inviting local writers to pen approved opinion columns for the publication. We invited Kyle Roerink to write columns on natural resource issues throughout Nevada and the West. 

Kyle Roerink is the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. He and his wife live in Reno Nevada. Support his writing.


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.