February storms brought plenty of snow to the western U.S., deepening snowpack and improving the drought picture overall, while Texas continued to dry out. During the month, the NDMC added 12 impacts to the Drought Impact Reporter. Four impacts were for Alaska, which was suffering from a long-term drought that has reduced water supplies and hampered hydropower production. Three impacts were reported for Colorado and two each for California and Utah as all three states looked forward to improved water supplies and easing drought, thanks to deep snow.
Low water supplies for Alaska hatcheries, hydropower
Years of below-normal precipitation in southeastern Alaska have reduced reservoir levels, threatening hatcheries and hydropower generation in that part of the state. Low water supplies led the operators of the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery in Juneau to move salmon fry to the cold sea in January, months earlier than usual. Water from the reservoir was too warm for the fry, prompting the earliest ever move to net pens in the sea.
At the end of February, a hatchery near Petersburg had about 50 days’ worth of water remaining and will have to consider relocating more than a million juvenile king and coho salmon.
With reservoirs low, some communities were relying more heavily on other power sources. Petersburg, Ketchikan and Wrangell were almost entirely relying on fossil fuel for electricity as their reservoirs ran low for hydropower production. Juneau was no longer providing power for its interruptible customers, meaning those who buy energy when surplus water was available.
Hatcheries the ‘canary in the coal mine’ as drought extends across Southeast Alaska, by Jacob Resneck, Alaska Public Media (Anchorage, Alaska), March 1, 2019
Ketchikan burns diesel to pay back summer hydro buy, by Leila Kheiry, KRBD (Ketchikan, Alaska), Feb. 7, 2019
Colorado snowpack improved
Numerous winter storms brought plentiful snow to Colorado in February, bringing the median snowpack to 114 percent of average by the end of the month. Even in the southwestern corner of the state, which has been the driest part of the state, the snowpack amounted to 122 percent of the median, tied with the Arkansas River Basin for the most snowfall in the state. The Colorado River Basin, too, was at 112 percent of median. Given the severity of the drought in the region, experts warned that runoff still may be average, even with the thick blanket of snow.
State's snowpack 'turning a corner', by Dennis Webb, The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado), March 1, 2019
Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan
The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan remained a work in progress through February as Arizona and Colorado continued their efforts to finalize agreements. The aim was to complete the plan by January 31, but after that deadline was missed, states were given a March 4 deadline, which was not met. Since then, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has requested suggestions from western governors on how to maintain the level of Lake Mead.
Years of below-normal precipitation in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water for 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland, have left the two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, near their lowest combined storage since the early 1960s. If Lake Mead were to fall to its dead pool, the point at which no water will flow from the reservoir, the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California would not receive any Colorado River water.
Why the Drought Contingency Plan ‘Deadlines’ Don’t Tell the Full Story, by Bret Jaspers, Arizona Public Media (Tucson), March 5, 2019
Beneficial winter storms fueled by atmospheric rivers have continued to bring ample precipitation to California since the start of the year, deepening the snow in the Sierra Nevada and refilling reservoirs. The extent of drought was drastically reduced from the start of the year, when about three-fourths of the state experienced drought, to the end of February, when just 2.33 percent of northern California remained in moderate drought.
While drought has improved, California’s trees continued to bear the consequences of years of drought. The state has suffered the loss of another 18 million trees since the fall of 2017—a substantial number, but fewer than the 27 million dead trees counted in the fall of 2017, or the 62 million dead trees documented in the fall of 2016. The return to more rainfall and less drought has helped trees resist the bark beetles that have damaged and killed so many trees. Since drought began in 2010, more than 147 million trees on 9.7 million acres have died. The slowing rate of tree mortality was reason for optimism.
Time-lapse map shows how winter rains have washed away California’s drought, by Nikie Johnson, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, California), Feb. 26, 2019
Winter storms wash away California drought, burnish snowpack, by John Antczak, the Associated Press, The Sacramento Bee, Feb. 28, 2019
18 million trees just died in California, continuing worries of major wildfires yet to come, by Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee, Feb. 11, 2019
At mid-February, Utah’s snowpack was definitely improving, although the state’s reservoirs remained below normal as the snow-water equivalent in the Utah mountains ranged from 114 percent to 172 percent of average. Water managers were elated at the prospect of ample runoff and a reprieve from drought. Continued storms were needed to bolster the snowpack through March to ensure good runoff this year.
In an effort to improve Salt Lake City’s water supplies, the city began cloud seeding to enhance precipitation and deepen snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains, which yield drinking water for the city. The city last engaged in cloud seeding during the 1990s, but given the past two decades of drought, city officials were aiming to diversify their water sources to withstand whatever challenges the future might bring.
Utah snowpack packed with water, but reservoirs remain low, by Brian Maffly, The Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 16. 2019
Salt Lake's cloud-seeding efforts 'give Mother Nature a little something extra to work with' during snowfall, by John Hollenhorst, Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), Feb. 11, 2019
Water experts optimistic about Utah snowpack levels — so far, by Lauren Bennett, Desert News (Salt Lake City, Utah), March 2, 2019
Lingering drought impacts for Missouri cattle
Cattle producers in Missouri continued to experience drought impacts that began months ago. Drought during 2017 and through the summer of 2018 reduced available hay and grass supplies, leaving farmers to feed whatever hay was available—some of questionable quality—to their livestock. Some of the poorer quality hay was high in nitrate and resulted in the deaths of 150 cattle from January into February. In southwestern Missouri, one farmer lost 40 of his 70 cattle, while another farmer lost 20 cows.
High nitrate in hay causes cow deaths, by Hay & Forage Grower (Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin), Feb. 18, 2019
For more details, please visit the Drought Impact Reporter.