The creek has promising beginnings atop the peak of Lone Cone in the San Juan Mountains, an extinct volcano that soars over 12,000 feet into the Colorado sky. Its headwaters chase the sun westward for 40 miles. Along the way, the arid ground siphons it, and what’s left is spoiled with alkali and other contaminants, according to author Wilma Crisp Bankston. “In summer and fall, before the water reaches the lower valley, it is often bitter and yellow,” she wrote in the 1987 book, “Where the Eagles Winter.” That is, if it reaches the lower valley. Bankston’s research into the oral folklore of the area found that the creek’s name is said to have come from a party of early surveyors who were tasked with mapping that lower valley. The day was hot — late summer in the high desert — and the crew had run out of water. Following the wisdom of aspen and spruce trees to the banks, they expected to find a long, cool drink. But they found the creek as dry as a bone.
Most years, Disappointment Creek doesn’t make it very far. But when it does, it intersects with a river, one once called El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores by Spanish friars in the 1700s. That Spanish name translates to The River of Our Lady of Sorrows. But today, we simply know it as the Dolores. “The Dolores River is much beloved in this area, but it’s also kind of a tragic story because in times of drought, it frequently runs virtually dry,” says Teal Lehto, a river guide and the water rights activist behind the Western Water Girl platform. “It only runs once every two or three years. Sometimes it’s up to a decade between runs.”
The Disappointment Valley and the Dolores River’s annual ritual of scarcity have served as a visible barometer for the West’s water shortages in recent years. It has exemplified the shriveling of natural resources, the suffocation of agricultural livelihoods and rural communities, the overextension of demands and the breaking point of supply. But this summer, as a historic snowpack melted across the West and water roared 6,000 feet down from Lone Cone into the Dolores River Canyon and flooded forgotten banks, it became an emblem of deliverance from drought; of a season that could save.
“Parts of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado saw record snowpack — most notably the Dolores River Basin. The San Juan Mountains in the Four Corners region has been the epicenter of the megadrought since 2000, and the Dolores River Basin is one of the rivers that’s seen the most significant impacts from drought over the last 23 years,” says Seth Arens, research scientist at Western Water Assessment, the University of Colorado-CIRES and the University of Utah-GCSC. “We had this really impressive line of atmospheric rivers coming onto the coast of California, and they were strong enough that they pushed inland and dumped tremendous amounts of snow.”
Those storms delivered relief nearly everywhere in the West. The Wasatch range in Utah received over 900 inches this winter, and the state reached a snowpack that clocked in at 201 percent of normal, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The Sierras welcomed back long-lost lakes, and California’s statewide snowpack peaked close to 300 percent of the average level. Pockets of Nevada’s Basin and Range region also saw record levels. Idaho, Wyoming and even areas of Arizona reached above-average snowpack for the year. For the first time in decades, snow piled up to six feet and above at lower elevations around 6,000 feet, allowing the ground to be adequately quenched by the time spring runoff began flowing toward the valleys.
The snow kept falling, and hopes for drought relief rose with the stacking snow. In the spring, the National Integrated Drought Information System’s Special Edition Drought Status Update for the Western United States declared a 50 percent reduction in drought coverage since the start of the water year.
“This wasn’t the kind of year that was anticipated,” says Arens.
The Wasatch range in Utah received over 900 inches of this winter. The Sierras welcomed back long-lost lakes. Nevada’s Basin and Range region saw record snowpack. Even areas of Arizona reached above-average for the year.
Looking at the West’s most recent annual water reports is like looking at a rap sheet. The redundant bad years string together — 2018, 2020, 2021, 2022. The summer of 2020 was especially bad. “We had near average snowpack but it ended up getting a 35 percent average runoff” that translated to streamflow, Arens says. Watersheds and reservoirs were depleted, wildfires raged, and the West’s lack was on full display as the “foreseeable future.”
This season’s precipitation snuck in under many scientists’ radars. At the end of 2022, the Western Hemisphere was still considered to be in a moderate La Niña climate pattern, which typically brings drier and warmer conditions to the Southwest and wetter and cooler conditions to the Northwest in the U.S. But that’s not what played out over the course of the winter. Instead, there was widespread above-average precipitation from southern Oregon and Idaho, all the way to the Mexican border. The season stayed cold, so there was little water lost to midseason melts, and the precipitation piled up. A spring monsoon season brought cooler temperatures and enough moisture to rehydrate soils and accommodate more efficient runoff. Water, for the first time in a long time, became abundant. “The thing that makes this year truly remarkable for me is that it’s so widespread in terms of how much water came in throughout the western U.S.,” says Arens.
When the reservoirs filled and allocations were guaranteed, the memory that just one year ago, Utah — one of the states with the largest snowpacks in recorded American history — was 80 percent covered in extreme or significant drought, faded. At the time of publishing, just 6.9 percent of the state is considered to be in a condition of drought. “It is undeniably a good thing that we had such a big winter,” he adds. “These are some of the lowest levels of drought we’ve seen in quite a few years.”
California has been engulfed in the intense repercussions of severe drought for years — towns like Mendocino Village running out of water, historic deadly wildfires like the Camp Fire in 2018, and bodies of water like Tulare Lake and the Salton Sea drying up into toxic dust beds and taking local economies with them. But this year, the state experienced a turnaround, most notably for the southern area of the state, which, in the spring, actually had to release freshwater into the ocean because there was simply too much. “When we peaked with our snowpack, it was close to 300 percent of average, which is absolutely insane. And a lot of that came from southern parts of the state where we’ve been really needing that water,” says Andrew Schwartz, the lead scientist and manager of the University of California, Berkeley, Central Sierra Snow Lab. “For the first time since 2006, California has met 100 percent of its water allocations. That’s how big this year is.”
This year was even bigger than other big years, like 1983. That year, the snow water equivalent from the snowpack was recorded around 26 inches in Utah. This year was an extraordinary 29 inches. But somehow, this season didn’t bring widely destructive flooding in states like Utah, as was anticipated. “This year was the perfect scenario for not causing damage,” says Arens. “We didn’t flood because it would warm up and then it would storm or cool down. That cycle of warming up and cooling down makes for a less efficient runoff but in the case of having so much snow it makes it safer from a hazard viewpoint.” Melt cycles, temperature variability, water loss to ground absorption and evaporation, dust on snow events, and snow sublimation (the vaporization of snow) all contribute to how one historic year can look wildly different from the next when you start crunching numbers. As conditions and climate qualities change, so will our water cycle and weather patterns. And so will our averages.
A common misunderstanding about what “100 percent snowpack” means is that it translates to 100 percent of that area’s historic average. But, it doesn’t. In fact, “100 percent snowpack” is a measurement that changes every few decades, adjusting to the average of the most recent 30-year period. According to the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, April snowpack declined at 93 percent of the snow telemetry network sites that were measured, with the average decline across all sites amounting to nearly 23 percent between 1955 and 2022. Although we are meeting “100 percent snowpack” measurements and beyond some winters, what actually measures as 100 percent is declining. As our target numbers for averages shrink and our water demands and populations grow, operating at an annual deficit becomes the norm. “We use so much water every year that an above-average snowpack is really just like the amount of water that we need to actually fulfill the allocations that we’ve made within the basin,” says Lehto. “Because that’s how big of a deficit we’re running on.”
When you set that stage, it becomes more sobering to understand how California and other states met their water allocations this year. Meeting 100 percent of a state’s annual water allocations now requires Biblical winters that settle in with a historic 200-300 percent of a region’s annual snowpack.
“If we had ‘average’ years before this, we might’ve gotten away with 100 percent or 150 or 200 percent — it just depends,” says Schwartz. “But because our reservoirs were so low, 300 percent of average snowpack means that we’re fulfilling 100 percent of our allocations for water statewide for the first time since 2006. So it’s taken us (nearly) two decades. But this doesn’t put us ahead for the future. … And probably because of the big winter we had people have lessened their conservation efforts.”
These “new normals” not feeling abnormal is a matter of shifting baselines — defined in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment as “a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment” due to lack of information or lack of experience. As our seasons change, it can be difficult to discern what is “average” and what is ideal for our needs. “This summer it felt cooler, but if you actually look at the numbers, it’s still running a couple of degrees above the 30-year average,” says Arens. “By looking at historical numbers, it’s still been a hot summer. But because of our recollection as humans, we’re thinking more of the last couple, five, maybe 10 years … our perspective is skewed.” Even record-breaking snowpacks can’t stop our winter average snow from declining and our summer heat from rising.
As the reservoirs filled and allocations were guaranteed, the memory that just one year ago, most of the West was covered in extreme or significant drought, faded.
One of the lessons of old cowboy wisdom is that you can’t find the holes unless you check the fence line. A water year like this makes the gaps obvious — if we have any after record-breaking abundance, it’s up to us to fix them, not Mother Nature.
We’ve been here before. Both 2017 and 2019 were above-average for snowpack and snow water equivalent content, and yet we still wound up in the deepest drought on human record; with the Great Salt Lake at risk of drying up, Glen Canyon Dam nearly falling below power pool levels, and entire communities — namely on Native American reservations — without water. Any lack of action on developing further water solutions serves as two steps back instead of three steps forward when we do have above-average water years. “When we have many dry years, like will eventually happen, we’re gonna go back to that same deficit,” says Schwartz. “We still need to really focus on solutions to our water crisis because, though we’ve had one good year, it’s just delaying the further troubles that we’re going have when we don’t have that precipitation.”
Experts are skeptical of solutions that haven’t proven to be environmentally or economically beneficial in the past, like building more dams and reservoirs across the West, which aren’t necessarily feasible. Even with additional storage, spreading out the water that you’re getting between more dams means less water in each, causing issues similar to what’s playing out on a large scale in Glen Canyon/Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
As of August, total storage for both Lake Powell and Lake Mead was under 35 percent. If you were to combine both reservoirs’ storage into Lake Mead, that reservoir wouldn’t have reached 70 percent. “Even I was surprised that it wasn’t more,” says Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute. “Clearly, even after decade-high runoff, if we can’t get close to half-full, that should be an eye-opener for everybody in the basin.”
Water retention is one challenge, but allocation is another. In many Western states, the idea of watersheds and ecosystems themselves having a right to water is a relatively new political idea. In Utah, a water banking statute — 73-31-101 — was adopted during the 2020 general session to help protect the Great Salt Lake’s elevation and HB130 was passed, allowing appropriated water returned to its watershed to finally be considered a “beneficial use” of that water. Since, private water donations have been made to set an example for legislation to make significant impacts for watersheds. Earlier this year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated over 5,700 water shares in the North Point Consolidated Irrigation Company to the state of Utah for the Great Salt Lake. Following that, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also formally submitted a request to the City Council to authorize the Public Utilities Department to file the necessary water right documentation amounting to an annual contribution of nearly 13 billion gallons.
Nevada, a notoriously progressive state when it comes to legislation around water conservation, is able to pass water conservation measures with relative ease because of the lack of a large and powerful agricultural lobbying group. Earlier this summer, the state passed a $63 billion initiative to fund 13 water conservation projects and became the first state in the country to give a local water agency the power to limit individual home water use and protect Lake Mead.
“In Colorado, we really don’t prioritize ecosystem needs at all,” says Lehto. “We didn’t legislate the ability to assign water rights to ecosystem needs until the 1970s. Considering water rights have a chronological priority dating, a lot of those rights really don’t materialize when the ecosystem needs them most. … The legal infrastructure that (reservoir managers are) operating under requires them to prioritize the senior water rights holders that they provide water to.”
The politics of senior water rights have gotten thornier in recent years, but they reached a new level this summer. Even when there’s enough water to go around, many communities are still coming up empty-handed. Additional roadblocks for tribes trying to settle their water rights have reared up, such as the 1908 Winters Doctrine. The Supreme Court ruling requires that the United States provide enough water on every treaty for the entire population of a reservation to survive, but these particular rights were not considered during the creation of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. Now, many tribal communities of the Colorado River Basin have to settle for water from the allocation that’s already been given to that state through the compact, without any access to their own independent rights.
This winter provided some relief and some leeway, but there’s wariness that it gives a false sense of security in the West.
Around 100 miles from the Disappointment Valley, Lake Nighthorse sits full to the brim, its glassy surface reflecting the broad ridgelines of nearby Basin Mountain. Built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 2003 as part of the Animas-La Plata Project, the reservoir is filled by pumps carrying water two miles uphill from the shallow Animas River. Built to the tune of $500 million, Lake Nighthorse’s water is allocated to members of the Southern Ute tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and the Navajo Nation. However, it’s currently jointly managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the City of Durango, and none of the tribes have accessed the water. During planning and upon completion, the federal government didn’t provide infrastructure for the delivery of the water. Because of that lack of framework, as soon as any tribe accesses the Nighthorse water they have to start paying back the federal government for the maintenance and operation costs of building the reservoir. So the reservoir sits, mostly untapped, right outside the city of Durango, using nearly as much power as the city itself uses just to pump the water. “I think it’s a good example of the boondoggle of complicated water rights we’ve created for Native Americans in this area,” says Lehto. “How many of them have water rights on paper that they are not actually able to access? Tribes legally could be entitled to (nearly) a third of the water in the Colorado River Basin. In my opinion, any plan going forward needs to acknowledge the very real possibility of the tribes actually using all of their water rights.”
Instead, stand-up paddleboarders float across the surface of Nighthorse, and an inflatable water park bobbles near the shoreline. The reservoir remains full, while the last drops of this season’s version of the Dolores River trickle westward toward Utah, determined to make it to the confluence of the Colorado River.
This year, for the first time in many, this beneficiary of Disappointment Creek had 55 days of boatable flows. Normally, the Dolores runs between 100-500 cubic feet per second (cfs) when reservoir managers release annual flows. But this year, it roared at 5,000 cfs. The waters flooded beaches and washed away invasive plants. It watered thousands of acres, offering full allotments for farmers. People from the nooks and crannies of the West came to witness the Dolores in this kind of glory. And to enjoy it. Rowing on through this rarely-seen canyon on waters that no one’s ran in over a decade, spirits were high. But for Lehto, being on her boat was bittersweet. “One year of solid snowpack does not negate the consistent deficit we have and how we allocate water in this area,” she says. “I am really happy that this winter provided some relief and some leeway for negotiations, but I’m also a little wary that it gives a false sense of security.”
This season was one of deliverance, even if that simply means having a chance to save ourselves by leveraging this leeway to look ahead and create a better future. “We as humans have short-term memory — especially with things that are a little bit positive,” says Schwartz. “We’ve got some time, but we need to focus on long-term solutions. You can’t just hope water into existence.”