Parts of the Southwest remain dry
During March, the Northwest received above average precipitation and the Southwest dried out, according to data from the fourth 2016 forecast by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“Early April is when the snowpack peaks in many areas,” NRCS Hydrologist Cara McCarthy said. “And we’re seeing near-normal snowpack in much of the West, though parts of the Southwest are lagging behind. This year’s El Niño brought us a few surprises.”
In Western states where snowmelt accounts for the majority of seasonal water supply, information about snowpack serves as an indicator of future water availability. The wildland fire community closely watches snowpack and water supply availability predictions as limited snowpack and the rate of snowmelt are two of the many factors that affect the severity of wildland fire season in the West.
Streamflow in the West consists largely of accumulated mountain snowmelt that flows into streams as temperatures warm in spring and summer. NRCS scientists analyze the snowpack, precipitation, air temperature and other measurements taken from remote sites to develop the water supply forecasts.
NRCS has installed more than 800 high-elevation weather stations, known as SNOTEL sites. These remote, automated sites transmit hourly updates on snowpack conditions, greatly enhancing data collection and forecast accuracy. All of the data is free and available online.
Producers, businesses and state and federal agencies use forecasts in many ways. “Earlier this year, water users on Utah’s Sevier, Southwest and Virgin Rivers were preparing to release water from their respective dams in anticipation of abundant El Niño precipitation,” said Utah Hydrologist Randy Julander. “However, when NRCS’ forecasts showed much less snow than they expected, they reversed course. Now they’re storing every drop they can.”
Water supply forecasts are a consideration in drought declarations. “In 2015, snowpack and precipitation data were used to make drought designations that ranged from D1-D3 across most of the counties in the state,” said Montana Hydrologist Lucas Zukiewicz. “This helped a lot of producers qualify for assistance in areas with lingering designations of D2 and above.”
The water supply forecast, typically issued monthly from January to May, is one of several ways USDA works to improve public awareness and manage the impacts of climate change, including drought and other extreme weather events. Through the National Drought Resilience Partnership, federal agencies are working closely with states, tribes and local governments to develop a coordinated response to drought.
NRCS provides science-based conservation solutions to farmers and ranchers that help mitigate the effects of drought and prepare against future weather events. These practices enable farmers and ranchers to use water more efficiently as well as boost the health of soil, which is better able to store water for when it is needed most. For information on assistance, visit Getting Started with NRCS.
For information on USDA’s drought mitigation efforts, visit USDA Drought Programs and Assistance. To learn more about how NRCS is helping private landowners adapt to changing climate conditions including drought, visit the NRCS’ drought resources.