The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service this week confirmed previous agency projections of poor runoff in the West, bringing concerns to consumers and producers alike about the potential for another dry summer.
The last of six monthly forecasts for the year, the forecast compares the current level of water content in snowpack in 13 Western states with historical data to help the region's farmers, ranchers, water managers, communities and other stakeholders make informed decisions about water use and future availability.
Overall, June's data shows snowpack was below normal in most areas and fell further behind each month since January. NRCS hydrologist Tom Perkins says New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Oregon will experience major shortages due to the ongoing drought and low reservoir storage.
On color-coded maps for water supply forecasts, black symbols indicate areas of "extreme dryness," which are predicted to receive less than 20% normal runoff.
"I started forecasting in 1983, and I don't think I've ever seen a black symbol before," Perkins said. "This year we have several black symbols in New Mexico."
Perkins explained that the NRCS' forecasts don't predict drought, but they provide valuable information about the future water supply based on snowmelt in states where it accounts for a majority of the seasonal runoff.
"The soil in the southern half of the West is like a dry sponge that will absorb and hold water as it melts from the snowpack," he explained. "Only when the soil is sufficiently saturated will it allow water to flow to the streams."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has already designated many counties in Western states as eligible for USDA drought assistance. NRCS says western states should prepare for potentially increased vulnerability to forest and rangeland fires and mandatory water restrictions.
But, as dire as the outlook for parts of the Southwest continues to be, there are a few exceptions to the dry conditions.
The northern Cascades, western Montana and the headwaters of the Missouri and Columbia rivers are near normal. "For the rest of the West, there is no silver lining," Perkins said. "I think it's going to be a long, hot, dry summer."
The conditions are monitored using NRCS' SNOTEL system and the Soil Climate Analysis Network. These sensors gather soil data that helps NRCS better monitor drought development. NRCS scientists also analyze the snowfall, air temperature, soil moisture and other measurements taken from remote sites to develop the water supply forecasts.
The agency has been collecting information since 1935 and since 1970 has operated and maintained the SNOTEL system to collect snowpack and related climatic data in the western United States and Alaska.
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