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La Niña weather wreaks havoc in West

Record snow and severe droughts plaguing states

A fire burned earlier this year in New Mexico, where some 400 blazes have already scorched 315,000 acres. Western states are gearing up for what is forecast as a bad fire season. A fire burned earlier this year in New Mexico, where some 400 blazes have already scorched 315,000 acres. Western states are gearing up for what is forecast as a bad fire season. (Silver City Daily Press & Independent via Associated Press)
By Lynn Debruin
Associated Press / May 9, 2011

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SALT LAKE CITY — The winter and early spring have been extreme across the West, with record snowpacks bringing joy to skiers and urban water managers but severe flood risks to northern Utah, Wyoming, and Montana.

And despite all the wet weather in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada, parts of eastern Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona are in severe drought and gearing up for what is forecast as a bad fire season. In New Mexico, some 400 fires, driven by relentless winds, have already raced across 315,000 acres.

Credit — or blame — for the extreme weather goes mostly to a strong La Niña, which is associated with cooler-than-normal water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and an atmospheric flow that is causing drier than normal conditions in the Southwest and wetter than normal in the Northwest.

“This winter has been fairly unusual,’’ said Laura Edwards, a research climatologist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.

Randy Julander, supervisor for the Utah Snow Survey, said snowpacks are 200 percent of normal or higher throughout northern Utah. One lower-elevation area in the mountains 50 miles east of Salt Lake City is at 750 percent of normal, with another big storm headed to the region early this week.

In Colorado, the city of Denver and the Loveland Ski Area are separated by only 75 miles. Yet, the city, east of the Rockies on the high plains, has had only 21.8 inches of snow this season, the second-lowest in history with records dating back to 1882. Loveland, at the top of the Continental Divide, entered the weekend within four inches of breaking its season snowfall record of 572 inches (some 49 feet, set in 1995-1996).

“It’s almost a record low for one and a record high for another. You get the idea how extreme that is,’’ said Kevin Houck, an engineer with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “If I were a water manager, I’d be very happy about this.’’

As recently as last fall, the plunging levels of Lake Mead outside Las Vegas were dangerously close to triggering a mandated “shortage’’ declaration on the Colorado River system, which would have required both Nevada and Arizona to reduce water use.

But because so much snowmelt will be flowing into the Colorado River this year, the US Bureau of Reclamation announced recently it is releasing an extra 3.3 million acre-feet from upstream Lake Powell to Lake Mead. The additional flow into Mead is roughly 14 times the amount of Colorado River water used by Las Vegas and surrounding areas last year.

In Utah, Snowbird Ski Resort set its all-time snowfall record two weeks ago with 711 inches — more than 59 feet. It could stay open as late as July 4.

The flip side is that major flooding has become a worry at lower elevations in northern Utah, where snowpack is well above what it was during the massive floods of 1983, which caused $250 million in damage.

Crops were wiped out, homes and businesses damaged, and State Street in downtown Salt Lake City became a river for two weeks when an underground pipe could not contain the flow of City Creek. Interstate 80 was flooded and levels in the Great Salt Lake rose within eight feet of the runways at Salt Lake International Airport.

“When it does finally turn warm and the snow starts melting, it will be like filling a thimble with a fire hose,’’ said Julander. “It’s going to come down pretty much uncontrolled.’’

A big melt-off in a short time frame would make the situation dire.

In Wyoming, communities are already placing sandbags in anticipation of potential flooding. Last year, the state got a wake-up call when flooding damaged bridges, roads, and homes and required the Wyoming National Guard to deploy 400 soldiers to help.