Friday, March 19, 2004 | 11:14 a.m.
Mother Nature has let Las Vegas down again this winter.
Southern Nevada Water Authority Deputy General Manager Kay Brothers told her board Thursday that the winter has not brought even the average amount of snow to the Rocky Mountains, the source for the Colorado River and ultimately, for Lake Mead, which supplies about 90 percent of Clark County's drinking water.
Although more snow is possible, storms at this time would not likely make a significant difference, she told the board.
"The numbers are almost completely in for the runoff this year," Brothers said. "Again, we have another year when we are below average runoff."
She said the runoff will probably be about 77 percent of average. The snowpack is in better shape, at about 90 percent of average, but the toll of the drought on the region means that the ground is dry and will absorb much of the water that would otherwise flow into the Colorado River.
While that is better than some recent years, it is well below what water watchers said would be needed to reverse the slide toward a deeper crisis in regional water supplies.
After five years of drought, Clark County is already in the second stage of a three-stage reaction to drought. The "drought alert" began Jan. 1, and with it came more intensive water-use restrictions than the "drought watch" that began a year earlier.
A "drought emergency" could begin if the level of Lake Mead falls below 1,125 feet above sea level by Jan. 1, 2005. Three years ago, the level of lake was above 1,200 feet.
The third level of drought response also would bring more restrictions, but those have not been determined yet.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which is responsible for allowing states to take water from Lake Mead, is forecasting that next New Year's Day the lake level will be at 1,128 feet, bureau spokesman Bob Walsh said. By the summer of 2005, the agency expects that the level will drop below 1,116 feet, and by the January 2006, Southern Nevada will be in a drought emergency.
With the falling lake levels come the loss of water for the region. The loss so far has been confined to the so-called "surplus," or lake water that is not used by states in the upper Colorado River basin. For Las Vegas, that represents about 10 percent of the overall supply.
However, the federal government in coordination with the states, including Nevada, is developing guidelines for cuts into the basic appropriation in case the lake level continues to fall. In the meantime, the water authority is moving to develop alternative groundwater supplies as fast as possible, but there is no guarantee that the region will win state approval for the development of all the targeted supplies.
Kelly Redmond, a climatologist at the Desert Research Institute-Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, said there is some room for hope that the situation could improve over the next few weeks.
"There have been Aprils in the Rockies that have brought heavy snow," Redmond said. But the situation does not now look promising, he added.
"I wouldn't write off the year entirely, but the odds are certainly starting to diminish this time of year," Redmond said.
Another factor that will likely affect the amount of runoff in a negative way is the warm and sunny spring weather blanketing the West, he said.
Warm temperatures "are generally regarded as bad, because plants grow earlier, and they take up more water, and less water makes its way from the snowpack into the streams," he said.
"We're getting mid-May temperatures and it's the middle of March," Redmond said.