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West's snowy winter means soggy spring

GRANT, Colo. — Hydrologist Joe Messina pushes an aluminum tube straight down into the spongy springtime snow in a mountainside forest, crouches to read the markings on the side and calls out the depth: 28 inches.

He and partner Chris Pacheco weigh the snow captured in the tube, and Pacheco enters the result into his calculator. It returns good news: The snow is the equivalent of a 6 1/2-inch layer of water, well above average.

Across the West this spring, the picture is similar, with abundant mountain snow in most areas promising runoff that will provide a break from the drought that has sporadically parched the region since late 1999.

The Colorado mountains are poised to unleash more runoff than they have in 11 years. Streams in Washington and Oregon are forecast to carry up to 50 percent more water than usual. Lake Powell, stretching more than 100 miles across Utah and Arizona, is expected to rise 50 feet from its depleted state.

"The entire West looks pretty good, Colorado and the Pacific Northwest in particular," said Tom Perkins, a senior hydrologist with the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore. "There's no part of the West that's really what you'd call hurting."

This winter was the region's wettest since 2004-05.

It's rare for the entire region's mountains to enjoy a wet winter at the same time, said Doug LeComte, a drought specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Camp Springs, Md.

"Usually there's a separation between the northern part of the West and the southern part. One is usually very wet, and one is very dry. That dichotomy went away this winter," he said.

The reason was an unusually strong jet stream — it was "on steroids," LeComte likes to say — that pushed this past winter's storms across more of the West than expected. Cold weather helped by allowing the snow to build up instead of melting away rapidly, Perkins said.

The results are showing up at some 3,000 snow measuring sites in 12 states monitored by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The consequences are far-reaching. More than a half-dozen significant rivers originate in the Colorado mountains and flow through at least 10 other states and Mexico.

Forecasters say the threat of floods caused by the melting snow is still unclear, though high water is expected on both the westward-flowing Colorado and the eastward-flowing Arkansas. A sudden rise in snow-melting temperatures could push rivers and streams out of their banks. But a gradual warm-up, which is more typical, would limit the extent of flooding.

They are reluctant to say whether the deep snow signals the end of the drought or is just another interruption.

"It so much depends on your definition of drought," said LeComte.

West's snowy winter means soggy spring 04/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 11:54am]
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