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Colorado River water crisis averted thanks to good snowpack

SALT LAKE CITY — This year's winter weather has apparently helped avert a water supply crisis on the Colorado River. A decent snowpack in the drainages of eastern Utah, Colorado and Wyoming helped make that happen.

A water shortage declaration now seems very unlikely this year. But some experts believe it's inevitable someday.

The two principle storage reservoirs on the Colorado River are Lake Powell in southern Utah, and Lake Mead near Las Vegas. After a decade of drought, both are hurting.

If Lake Mead drops a little further, it would force a declaration of a shortage and a potential cascade of orders to cut water use. But a good winter snowpack seems to have saved the day, according to Malcolm Wilson, water resources chief of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

"It is highly, highly unlikely that we'll see a shortage declared for the lower basin," Wilson said. "It is a good year. It's one of the better ones we've seen certainly in the last decade, and we're looking to a really good inflow."

In fact, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are expected to rise significantly this year. But University of Utah professor Dan McCool, who has studied water issues for 30 years, says it's a close call.

"Nature is shooting at us with a machine gun. So, we may have dodged a bullet this year, but there will be many more bullets in the future," McCool said.

He says the Colorado is a river caught between rising demand and declining supply.

"The projected demands far exceed the projected supply," McCool explained.

Many scientists expect climate change to reduce the Colorado River's water supply even further. "Then we have the makings of a disaster," McCool said.

"But we don't expect that to happen, Wilson said. "The guidelines are set up to keep from getting there, and that is the hope: that (in) decent years, that we would stay away from having a shortage declaration."

Many expect hard bargaining in the future over the river's water supply. McCool thinks there are pluses and minuses for Utah: Extended drought might wipe out proposals for Lake Powell pipelines, but Utah farmers might get rich by selling water to Las Vegas.