California Snowpack Melts With Breathtaking Speed as Drought Continues in Most of the Western United States

By Tom Yulsman | April 18, 2014 11:58 am
California snowpack

Much of the Western United States is visible in this photograph shot from the International Space Station. (Source: NASA)

Severe drought continues in a large portion of the West, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report, issued yesterday.

In California, already particularly hard hit by drought, the situation is worsening. Temperatures there were 9 to 12 degrees above normal, which caused breathtakingly rapid melt of the California snowpack. Some areas of the Sierra Nevada lost half of the water locked up in snow in just one week. Yet, there was little change in inflows into the state’s starved reservoirs.

California snowpack

Click for an animation of the change in the water content of snow in California’s Sierra Nevada. (Source: NOHRSC)

With the exception of parts of the Pacific Northwest, and some areas of Wyoming and Colorado, the West overall experienced yet another dry week. Warm temperatures were also the norm. And drought conditions worsened in eastern New Mexico and the southwestern corner of Colorado.

The photograph at the top of this post, taken by astronaut Koichi Wakata aboard the International Space Station in late March, looks north from the finely etched Grand Canyon at bottom. Much of the interior West is visible in this single dramatic image.

At the extreme left of the photo you can make out the Sierra Nevada Range, where some snow is still evident, and the Central Valley of California beyond. Also clearly visible in the photograph are parts of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Idaho and the Pacific Northwest are visible in the upper part of the frame, and possibly a bit of Montana.

In the lower right quadrant you can make out Lake Powell upstream of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. In the lower left quadrant is Lake Mead, downstream of the canyon. These are the two giant reservoirs that act as hydrologic savings banks, helping to insure water supplies to some 30 million people. Other dams also store water in the Colorado River Basin, a fair portion of which is visible in the photo.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, overall storage of water in the basin now stands at just 47 percent of capacity, down from 53 percent last year at this time.

But there is a bit of good news — or perhaps I should say less bad news: Winter has brought a healthy amount of snow to the Colorado River Basin overall. As of April 14, the basin snowpack stood at 114 percent of normal. And the bureau is forecasting above normal inflows into Lake Powell through July.

But it won’t be even remotely enough bring water storage back to some semblance of normal.


  • Uncle Al
    The drought is not bad enough, so Lake Mead is being drained to “restore” the Colorado River. Let’s make it am acute crisis,

    Which part of this is Global Warming and which part is weather as a test of faith of Global Warming? I can’t admire the emperor’s invisible new clothes until somebody points to the invisible emperor.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Lake Mead is not “being drained.” Current capacity in the reservoir is 11,509,000 acre-feet. A total of 105,392 acre-feet of water was to be released as part of the restoration plan for the Colorado River Delta. That is less than 1 percent of the water in Lake Mead. Hardly perceptible, let alone an amount that justifies the use of the word “drained.”

      I’m curious as to why this bothers you so much that it prompts you to comment, whereas the explosive, unsustainable growth of Las Vegas evidently does not. In the mid-2000’s, 30,000 homes were being built in Vegas each and every year — just as the drought was really taking hold.

      A relatively infinitesimal release of water to help Mexican farmers and restore some semblance of a healthy ecosystem in the Colorado Delta bugs the heck out of you even though it has no significant impact on water levels, yet you don’t compelled to say anything about the true driver of the problem. What’s up with that?

      • Uncle Al

        Slaking Enviro-whinerism’s thirst is bankrupting California Central Valley farmers whose orchards are dying and whose crops cannot be grown in the US’ most productive farmland. “to help Mexican farmers. That is obscene. Mexican drug lords can subsidize their own.

        America’s corn eco-fuel heartland is still in winter. It must defrost and then dry before fields can be plowed and planted. Federal diversion of food to be burned is based upon estimated crop independent of “weather,” Skyrocketing food and fuel prices mysteriously evade the US drowning in agricultural surpluses and fracking recoveries “good for 100 years” that rationalized building a huge liquefied petroleum gas depot for exports. The cryogenic liquefiers are powered by burning fossil fuels, not corn, independent of cap and trade.

        Faith-based engineering inevitably precipitates economic cloudy days (second-story flooding).

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Allowing one of the great American rivers to reach its terminus is hardly “enviro-whinerism”, and respecting the water needs of those downstream of you is part of responsible water usage.

          I don’t understand your apparent belief that responsible, sustainable management of water resources is somehow green radicalism.

        • Tom Yulsman

          I’m sorry, but I can barely make sense of much of what you wrote. It is verging on incoherent.

          Concerning providing Colorado River water to Mexico (as well as Rio Grande water), it is not “obscene.” It is required by treaty. Would you have us abrogate our treaties?

          Don’t bother answering unless you can stick to the point and avoid childish phraseology like “enviro-whinerism.” It does nothing to advance anyone’s understanding here. Besides pushing people’s buttons (which I’m guessing is your main goal because it makes you feel better in your sanctimony), the only thing use of such language does is destroy your credibility. As I’ve said to you several times, if you want to be taken seriously, for crying out loud, BE SERIOUS.

  • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

    Tom, I’m sure you’ve written on this before, but I’m curious which markets are most reliant on this snow pack and what alternatives they have.

    • Tom Yulsman

      I’ve not done in-depth reporting on this, so I answer with some trepidation. Suffice it to say that California’s Central Valley is one of the word’s most important agricultural regions, and if I’m not mistaken, most of it is based on irrigation — with water ultimately derived from snowpack and groundwater. As for alternatives, I don’t think there are any. As the snowpack dwindles, groundwater is being depleted too. What’s left? Hope for El Niño and an end to the drought!

      This has some interesting information:

      • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

        Ah. I seem to remember reading that Northern California communities get significant amounts of their drinking water via pipeline from much further north in Oregon or Washington (how annoying must it be for people in water deprived areas to read about Portland flushing 38 million gallons of drinking water)

        The over exploitation of water resources makes me picture the collective resources as the Aral Sea about 30 years ago. The impact of the problem isn’t being fully felt yet (at least not in the areas that have enough financial resources to avert crisis), but its only a matter of time till we start seeing shocking before/after panoramas of once green valleys that are now completely barren that parallel the grounded ships at fishing communities that are now miles from the sea.

        Thanks for the link. That was an interesting read.

        • Tom Yulsman

          This website has useful information on where different communities in California get their water:

          One thing I did not talk about in my post was where Colorado River water winds up in California. The major users are Southern California municipalities, including Los Angeles and San Diego, and irrigation districts in SoCal, including the Imperial, Coachella Valley, and
          Palo Verde irrigation districts.

          So California gets water from its own mountains and aquifers, and from afar as well, including from the Colorado River. My post addressed the impacts of the current dearth of snowpack, and I also mentioned that total storage in the Colorado River Basin is at a disturbingly low 47% of capacity right now. But what I didn’t mention is that consumption of Colorado River water began to exceed supply in the early 2000’s — because of increasing demand, and long-term drought. (More here:

          Here’s the deal: Basically, the Colorado River Compact, which was signed in 1922, allocated 7.5 million acre feet of the river’s flows to the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and 7.5 million to the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada. (Later, another 1.5 acre-feet were allocated to Mexico by treaty.) The problem is that conditions were just about as wet as they’ve been in the last 100 years when the deal was signed. In other words, at the time it looked like the river easily could provide more 16 million acre-feet per year. But now we know that over the long run, it can’t.

          This one graphic sums up the dilemma: Given the true picture of climate in the basin, I think it is a mistake to think of “drought” as abnormal. It is really the norm!

          But all is not lost. There are still huge opportunities to use water more efficiently. There is much low-hanging fruit that has not been picked. When there was an abundance of water, no one had to think of efficiency and conservation. Now we do. Will we be smart and do the right thing?

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            ugh. Lost a long response to the dreaded Windows 8 update (really? Why can these not be delayed? sigh).

            In short, the whole problem seems to be a classic principle/agent issue. Business men and politicians have more built-in immediate interest in short term profit rather than long term equity.

            Too often the people making policy simply don’t have adequate incentive to make unpopular decisions.

            I suspect it will be an issue where for decades the region is balanced on a knife’s edge. There will be just enough adoption of more efficient practices to keep the situation tenable…. until it isn’t.

            You keep putting bandaids on a car with all sorts of mechanical issues without ever actually fixing the underlying problems. When it final break down, it is 50 miles from the nearest town in a cell phone dead area.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            On the other hand, we do have a history of reaching a breaking point and learning our lesson. Maybe I’m just too much of a pessimist.

          • Tom Yulsman
          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            Worth 1018 words. I like it.

  • PaulFelixSchott

    Father look another fish near the top of the water Young Eagle soon there will be many as the water goes down.
    Father and when the water is gone what will we eat Young Eagle that is foretold in Revelation 19:17-18
    Have no fear young Eagle, those who are faithful to our Father in Heaven to the end will be saved.

    Satan’s Sin City “Las Vegas” very soon to die like a fish out of water

    World Leaders Pay Close “ATTENTION”.

    This Planet Earth Cannot And Will Not Support Life As We Know It Without Its FOREST.

    Soon all will take note to the sounds and rumbling of Volcanoes and Earthquakes Around Earth
    that are Waking Up at a Alarming Rate. Just as they did in 1883 from Krakatoa.


    Read well and study on your own after you have read this.

    This is not a game or joke our Sun gives off a Solar Wind all day year round. If you live in the State of
    Alaska you see it in the sky above what a sight it is going through our Earth’s Magnet Polls of the
    North and the South, North Poll. Its Called the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis.

    The day will come when you will be able to see it all over Earth as in the year 1859 Solar Flare,
    It was the largest in 500 years. Two Astronomer’s Hodgson and Carrington told the World that the
    Solar Flare made a Geomagnetic Storm reach Earth in hours not days. Back then it gave new meaning to
    “Reach For The Skies” from Telegraph Operators. For hours sparks flew from the key board. Even after
    the Batteries were disconnected. Nov 3 and 4, 2003 had a X40+ Class Solar Flare,
    Thank GOD it was not coming at Earth this time.

    Our Sun’s UV Rays will get stronger as each passing day go’s by, read and i will tell you why.

    The Great big FOREST have be striped from most of the Earth for Greed of Money by the Wicked.
    The trees our are Main Source of Oxygen on this Plant.

    The Forest Trees scrubs the Pollution out of the air and makes Oxygen from the rain and dirt that it grows in.

    The Forest Trees do more then just make Oxygen they stop Soil Erosion, just Look at the 1930 Dust Bowl. Greed by
    our wicked Government leaders to bleed from us as much money as they could out of us thru taxes led farmers to clear cut all their
    Forest, and farm all the land they were being Tax on.
    They had to farm it to pay for the Taxes. Why leave the Trees when food crop makes Money.

    This Did not Help the Depression that effected most all Worldwide. More then 100 million in the coming years will suffer from
    Malnutrition and Dehydration. Going without Food and Safe Drinking Water to drink many will die!

    One country can see clearly and knows already the World’s food and safe drinking water supply is running out at a record pace.
    With one of the worlds largest Population it has taking steps to no longer let anyone in its country, export any of its farmland grown
    food or grain from INDIA to any other country Nov 2013.

    China is trying to buy up all the world’s grain it can and the future harvest of framers.
    Future Commodities of Food Stocks soon will climb like a rocket because of this.
    China is also right now working on passing laws on its farmers. China Rural Reforms On Farming Jan 2014.
    It to soon will become a country that will not export any of its food or grain to any other country.

    In the United States of America alone more than 46+ Million Americans Received Food Stamps and that number is
    going up every day every year since 2009. The number of Homeless is growing world wide in
    America 20,000 in the once known to the world as “Motor City” Detroit Michigan.
    The bread and food lines are growing World wide. 100 to 300 in
    Sioux Falls S.D. Every Friday stand in the cold waiting to get food at the Military Armary. The same once a
    month in Hawaii in front of a Stone that drowafs any man That reads…….

    it list the names of many

    Through the years many of us have help cook and feed the poor and needy in Hawaii and around the World,
    most of us USA Military or work or did work or Volunteered for Uncle Sam.
    And GOD willing may we be able to do so till our LORD returns.

    The Pollution and CO2 Carbon Dioxide go into the Tree Bark as a shield from most bugs so they do not eat the tree.

    ((((((…..Less Forest less Oxygen this is why the Moon. That has no Oxygen is very cold on the side with out Sun Light,
    And hot as ever on the side with Sun Light. Way too cold and too hot to live there. You would need at least 10
    times the Energy we use on Earth to even live there and life on the Moon would be very short……)))))))))))

    ((((…With no blank of Oxygen to lessen or reduce the Sun’s UV Rays and Solar Wind they are deadly there on our Moon.
    Every Mt. Climber and Aircraft Pilot knows the higher you go the thinner the Oxygen and colder it gets….)))))

    Just spend a night on a Mt. top above 13,000 feet with no Sun Light and you will see or should i say feel the
    cold stinging any of your exposed skin. If you are new to Mt. Climbing stay below 10,000Ft. The Astronauts and
    the Cosmonauts and Fighter Pilots that i have been with for years know this very well, and the Radiation Hazards
    to humans at High Altitudes.

    Soon the Sun’s Solar Wind and UV rays will be way to strong for most to go out in the Sun Light for even a short time.

    The Geomagnetic Storm to come and the Bad Weather Storms well you have not seen nothing yet and the Sea Level is Rising
    the Oceans. Many Millions have been affected by Floods in China and Pakistan and around the planet.
    Every year there is more storms and they are stronger of greater magnitude and bigger.
    In 2005 Over a Thousand dead in New Orleans flood, and the list is going on.
    Homes without Electric power are in the hundreds to 1,000 all over earth every year now from storms.
    Pray you are ready to be without power for a week or two in the winter – 0 or summer 100 +.

    GREENLAND Ice sheet took more then 3,000 years to get its mass size and weight.

    Greenland’Ice sheet is one of the largest ice sheets
    on this Planet Earth it is the second in mass.

    People on Earth are putting an end to it in less then 50 years.

    There is a very simple point to this. Dams all over the planet have had
    a Earthquake when filled too fast or let out a lot of water in a short time.

    GREENLAND Ice sheet Weight is a unbelievable amount as it gets lighter,
    GREENLAND ICE sheet WILL give a Earthquake no one will forget. KJV Rev 6:12
    Coastal cities LOOK OUT a Mt. Wall Of Water will come, from one of these Earthquakes.

    If you live by the coastline now is a good and smart time to move you might not get
    another chance to do so in time.

    History has recorded times of coastal towns,
    cities and coastline being inundated by sea water 5 to 10 miles inland.

    In the past 50 years Earth has had more FLOODING then in the last 1,000 years.


    And there shall be Famines, and Pestilences, and Earthquakes, in divers places such as was not from the beginning of the Creation.

    Scientist Dr. Katharine Giles had done many experiments investigating “Sea Ice Thickness”,
    and showed it to governments around the Earth how the Sun rays and winds
    affected the newly exposed Arctic Ocean. Some of Scientist Dr. Giles research focused on using satellites to better
    understand the physics of the ice covered Polar Oceans.

    Scientist Dr. Giles to all Warning Water will warm faster then ICE covered water or water with ice in it.

    The last 30 years On Earth we have broke all High Temp Records and the temp it is still going up.
    All the Worlds Ice Glacier are melting at an Accelerating Rate. The Glaciers and Polar Ice Caps store more water than
    all the Fresh Water Lakes on Earth.

    Look to the (US Gov web site “USGS U.S. Geological Survey” Repeat Photography of Alaskan Glaciers USGS)

    The Bad Weather Storms now are Babies compared to what is to come.

    They will get even bigger and worse less Oxygen the more UV Rays to the Earth and more Water molecules will evaporate and go
    up into the Earth’s Atmosphere. Less Oxygen the Colder with out sun light and Hotter with it.
    Record cold and record hot temps, highs and lows will now be broke every year.

    The Sky full of more water vapor molecules, more snow in the winter and more Flash Floods in the Summer. All earth will
    see way more fires and the Deserts are growing larger and have been for the last 75+ years.

    The water Springs in the desert that once made the place a oasis to support life are long gone.
    Satan’s Sin City “Las Vegas” very soon to die like a fish out of water.

    The Governor of California Jerry Brown has declared a State Of Emergency due to the driest DROUGHT in California’s history. Friday January 17, 2014
    Lake Mead at record low and soon will not be able to make electric power.

    (” If every living person on Earth were to Plant A Tree Today we might have a chance.”)

    IN PAKISTAN MORE THEN A MILLION TREES IN A DAY, and they did this for days.

    NOW WHY CAN WE NOT DO THIS WORLD WIDE? Maybe the UN and leaders on this planet are just a little more then show in the head.

    OUR Planets Atmosphere needs Oxygen with the decline of it the world’s health will decline, as like some of the
    not so smart gov payed Scientist. Some that will do or say anything for $$$$$.
    Once the days start getting shorter the cooler it will get and longer days warmer, most all fifth graders and every framer on Earth knows this.
    IF they had know better and had a brain like a Scientist to go with the tidal of one they carry they would have known,
    that the Sea Ice is going to grow at a Record Pace with Shorter Days. Just as with longer days the summers are going to
    brake all records each and every year that OUR Planets Atmosphere Oxygen declines.
    Mid Summer Days hot as Hell, Winter Nights POLAR BEAR WEATHER.

    (“EXPEDITIONS on ships into ice seas many have been done most all know it is safer and wiser to do it as the days are getting
    longer not as a fool when the days are getting shorter. You risk yours and the life’s of others that will come to rescue you.
    World Leaders and your Scientist be Smart open your eyes most all on Earth can see and want to hear the TRUTH from its leaders.
    Stop running your vessel Afoul. If you follow a true course the spirit that gives your heart its life will give you great wisdom
    and strength and power to resist the wicked.”)

    Scientist are you afraid of losing that fat pay check,
    or think that the wicked will end your work like NOBLE BRAVEHEARTED Scientist Dr. Katharine Giles.
    Everyone that the wicked think they have stopped its work 100 will replace that NOBLE BRAVEHEARTED one.
    By your work shall ye be judged do good help others and always seek and tell the TRUTH.
    Every soul will be filled with great fear that don’t help others and don’t seek the truth and our LORD, JUDGEMENT DAY.

    The Earth’s Atmosphere Blanket surrounding it protects life on Earth as Our Lord and GOD will all that seek Him.

    Then it is written WHEN THE TREE IS FULL IT IS HARVEST TIME. All the Earth will someday burn away.

    This is all Foretold in the Bible Read it
    and may our Lord Bless all that do so.

    Daniel 12 : 1 – 3

    The Lord’s Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

    2 Peter 3:10
    But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar
    and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the Earth and its works will be burned up.

    GOD Bless You and Your Love ones
    Give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ every day.

    Luke 21:20-22
    Matthew 24: 30-33

    Solar Energy the way to go.
    Many States and Countries Are and are Banning Fracking.


    Hydraulic Fracturing a Danger to us All.

    Archimedes and Albert Einstein
    These two are at the top of the list of the Worlds Greatest Scientists,
    Viewed by Scientist around the World.

    Sad that for the last 25 years or so of every teacher asked no matter what
    Grade k through 16. At least 80% of them did not know Archimedes. Even sadder 90%
    of them could not tell you what one of the most Brilliant Scientist to ever
    live on Earth. Won the Nobel Prize for.

    It was for the work Albert Einstein did to show the World it could get
    Free Energy, Electric from the SUN. (THE PHOTOVOLTAIC EFFECT).

    We still do not Teach this to are young Why?
    Churches all over earth are Going Solar why not are schools?
    In many cities and more added every day there are more (EV’s) Electric Vehicles Charging Stations than gasoline, the UK was one of the first.
    Wicked Leaders and many that are in the Dark and Lost wake up it will very soon be too late.

    Please go to (Electric Vehicle Charging Station map) Oil CEO’s soon to lose more than their shirt.
    FREE SOLAR ENERGY FROM THE SUN. Why KEEP sending your TAX $$$$$ to the Middle East.

    Canada is next door obama and is one of our Closest Allies. Canada keystone pipeline in January 2012,
    President Obama put the brakes on and rejected the application. We should have done all we could, to have completed the project long ago.
    Sorry obama i forgot Canada did close the wicked Muslin Islamic Republic Den Of Spies And Espionage in Canada and tell the Terrorist supporting
    people working in them to leave Canada in less then 5 days or go straight to jail.
    You obama are still trying to send Muslins all the USA tax money you can.

    WHY ARE WE STILL SENDING $$$,$$$,$$$,$$$ TO THE Middle East ?

    Around the Planet many have gone to WIND and SOLAR ENERGY.

    Go to IMAGES ON GOOGLE, LOOK AT (“Vehicle Charging Stations Map”) in many places on earth there are more Vehicle Charging Stations than gas Stations.UK

    Tesla car owners drive coast to coast FREE from the SUNLIGHT, January…2014.

    There is enough Energy coming from our SUN to power all are needs on Earth and then some.
    Albert Einstein …. 1907



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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