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Does all snow in the Rockies turn into water for Lake Mead?

Years of drought mean even plants and soil are soaking up more water.

PHOENIX — Lake Mead mostly relies on snowfall in the Rocky Mountains to refill its water levels. 

However, after years of drought and increasing temperatures, is the cycle of snow, runoff, and refill still working?

THE QUESTION

Would a normal snowpack in the Rockies mean we get a normal refill level of Lake Mead?

THE SOURCES

  • Haley Paul, Policy Director with Audubon Southwest
  • The United States Bureau of Reclamation

THE ANSWER

No, average rain in the Rocky Mountains won't end the drought.

RELATED: Lake Powell's drastic drop in water level shown in clear satellite images

WHAT WE FOUND:

Snow should melt into water which flows downstream to fill our reservoirs. That has been the cycle for ages, but experts say years of warming and drought are throwing off that cycle.

“Even when the Rocky Mountains get to near-normal levels of snowfall and overall precipitation, what we've seen in the last few years is below average river runoff,” Paul said.

For example, in 2020, we got around 85% of the average precipitation in the Rockies, but only 32% of the runoff.

The fall soil moisture was slightly better in 2021 than in 2020 at 98% of average precipitation and 68% of average runoff.

Haley Paul said because of drought and heat, soils and plants are more thirsty. This means the plants and soil drink up more water before it ever reaches our rivers.

“It’s that Domino Effect. It's that compounding effect that because we are on year 22 of our long mega-drought, it’s going to take many wet winters to climb out of that hole.“

The result is less water in places like Lake Mead—even when there are normal levels of precipitation.

RELATED: Yes, switching from grass to desert landscapes can save lots of water

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