While the recent report that winter snowpack has melted early does not have a direct impact on stream flows in Kansas, it does affect the forecast of water supplies.
"It certainly calls attention to the issue of water shortages in the western states," says Randy Hayzlett, an Arkansas River Compact Commissioner and farmer in far-western Kansas. The compact gives Kansas rights to water from the Arkansas River and mandates that a specific level of stream flow at the state line be maintained.
Hayzlett, who farms near Lakin in Kearny County, says his area got about three inches of rain in storms over the past week to 10 days and things are looking pretty good right now if you don't count the prospects for the winter wheat crop, which was pretty much devastated before the rains arrived.
However, in talking to fellow water management folks in the western states, he says he is well aware of the crisis that lies ahead, not in some long-range forecast but in the days and weeks ahead.
In case you missed it, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service reported last week the west-wide snowpack has already mostly melted.
"Across most of the West, snowpack isn't just low – it's gone," NRCS Hydrologist David Garen said. "With some exceptions, this year's snowmelt streamflow has already occurred."
Garen said that for much of the western US, the snowpack at many of the stations is at or near the lowest on record. Months of unusually warm temperatures hindered snowpack growth and accelerated its melt.
"It's been a dry year for the Colorado River," NRCS Hydrologist Cara McCarthy said. "Snowmelt inflow into the Lake Powell Reservoir is forecast at 34 percent of normal." The Lake Powell Reservoir supplies water to much of the Southwest, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and southern Arizona. "We only forecast streamflow from current conditions," McCarthy said. "Spring and summer rains might relieve areas that are dry."
In Western states where snowmelt accounts for the majority of seasonal water supply, information about snowpack serves as an indicator of future water availability. Streamflow in the West consists largely of accumulated mountain snow that melts and flows into streams as temperatures warm in spring and summer. National Water and Climate Center scientists analyze the snowpack, precipitation, air temperature and other measurements taken from remote sites to develop the water supply forecasts.
Hayzlett said the forecast of water shortages impacts decisions on water storage in the high-elevation reservoirs, which in turn influences how much water makes it downstream on the Arkansas River to the John Martin Reservoir.
Kansas has rights to John Martin water though the Arkansas River Compact, but that reservoir has been at low levels throughout the long drought that has plagued the western U.S. for more than four years.
Water can't be released downstream if the reservoir is too low.
Closer to home, Hayzlett said he is looking forward to the Kansas Water Authority meeting in Greensburg on May 20 and 21, where reports will be heard from the advisory committees formulating the 50-year plan for the Future of Water in Kansas.
He said he is uncertain how that plan will play out for farmers and ranchers heavily dependent on the depleting Ogallala Aquifer.
"Our area has the first intensive groundwater conservation area in the state, put in back in the 1970s and all we've really seen is the water pumped out from under us," he said. "If we shut off 91 out of 100 wells tomorrow, it would take thousands of years for the aquifer to fill and our farms, ranches and towns would all be gone in just a couple of years."