DENVER – Drought-weary Californians can’t expect much encouragement from mountains elsewhere in the West: Snow that fills the Colorado River is lagging, too, officials said Friday.
The snowpack in the Colorado and Wyoming valleys where the river originates now ranges from 51 to 79 percent of normal, said Brian Domonkos, Colorado supervisor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture snow survey, which monitors snowfall and water availability.
The Colorado River supplies water to about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in seven states, including California.
The Rocky Mountain snow that melts into the river doesn’t flow directly to California and other downstream users.
Instead, it’s held in a series of reservoirs that release enough water to fulfill the legal allotments to southwestern states under a series of agreements and court rulings.
The reservoirs have sufficient water to provide California and other downstream states with their full shares this year and for the foreseeable future, said Matthew Allen, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the reservoir system.
California also gets water from the Sierra Nevada range, where the snow cover was the lowest it ever has been in 65 years of record-keeping as of Wednesday.
Warm temperatures and scarce snowfall in early March caused the snowpack in Colorado to shrink significantly.
“To see the decline that we saw at the beginning of March, that is abnormal,” Domonkos said. “And to see it continue almost unabated, almost to now, that’s quite abnormal.”
A storm brought up to 11 inches of snow Thursday and Friday to parts of the Colorado mountains and foothills, but much of it fell east of the Continental Divide and eventually will melt into the South Platte and Arkansas rivers.
Preliminary readings showed the snowpack Friday in the South Platte basin was 87 percent of normal and 79 percent of normal in the Arkansas basin.
The U.S. Drought Monitor said 40 percent of California is in an exceptional drought, the most severe category, and another 25 percent is in an extreme drought, the second-most severe.
California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory, statewide water cutbacks by cities and towns, aiming for a 25 percent cut in water use.
Extreme drought conditions also spread into Nevada and southern Oregon, along with smaller pockets in Utah and Arizona.
Milder drought conditions extend across the rest of the West, except for most of Montana and Wyoming.
Other states served by the Colorado River are Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada.