River Flows

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Flows down the Salt and Verde Rivers are at 22 percent of normal. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Phoenix attributes the low flow to a lack of winter rain. Dino DeSimone of the conservation service will talk about the low river flows.

Ted Simons: Water flows down the Salt and Verde Rivers are well below normal due to a lack of winter rain and snowpack. Here to talk about the latest report on state river flows is Dino DeSimone, water supply specialist at the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Phoenix. Good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

Dino DeSimone: Hi, Ted, good to be here.

Ted Simons: That is a report on water flow and snowpack. Give me a better indication of what the report's looking at and what the report found.

Dino DeSimone: The April report is the final report of the winter. Basically it summarized what we already know. This was a very hot and dry winter. The snowpack was well below our normal expectations, so the effect on the watershed is that we don't have a lot of moisture up there that was going to go down into the rivers and the reservoirs.

Ted Simons: It was interesting, because it seems like early in the winter we had a couple of big storms kind of move through, and you thought well, maybe the La Nina thing is full of baloney. There was hardly anything after that.

Dino DeSimone: That was a big boost at the very beginning in November, December, then it just tapered off from there. Basically the last three months have been extremely dry in the mountains.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about snowpack. We'll start there, levels below normal, how much below normal?

Right. Well, the last time we did an official check at the beginning of this month, we were at single digits. We were less than 10 percent of normal throughout Morse of the areas of the mountains of the state. So this is extremely low. The last time we had this kind of a low winter was about 2006, some residents will remember. Every few years we definitely have a low snowpack and this is one of them.

Ted Simons: It looked like from the charts of the rim and other parts of the state may have been hit the worst.

Dino DeSimone: Most parts of the state have been extremely low. The Governor's task force that I serve on is saying the whole state is in some level of severe to moderate drought.

Ted Simons: There are areas where the precipitation over the winter may have been enough -- not normal or near normal, but not as bad as other parts of the state?

Dino DeSimone: North of Flagstaff, the San Francisco Peaks area, that received somewhere near half of normal. As far as anything approaching what we normally expect in an average winter, in Arizona we know the average or normal is pretty rare.

Ted Simons: Yeah, no kidding. Let's go to stream flow, I know that was another rubric here. Sounds like a below normal spring.

Dino DeSimone: Salt and Verde and other systems are flowing below a quarter of normal. The salt is below 10 percent right now. We are not contributing much runoff into the reservoirs right now.

Ted Simons: Sounds as though perhaps the Verde is in better shape than the Gila and the Salt and the Colorado, do we know why?

Dino DeSimone: It did receive a little more than the other watersheds as far as snow and rain. As of this month we're saying it's about half of normal, but again, that's still not very good. The Gila system was down to zero percent of normal during this month. So there's really no snowpack left. We had this little storm this past weekend that dumped very little here and there.

Ted Simons: For those of us who aren't familiar with where some of these mountains are and how they get to the Gila, the Verde, the Salt, when you say the Gila is in such bad shape, where are the mountains not helping out?

Dino DeSimone: Southeastern Arizona, going into New Mexico, those mountains contribute to the main Gila River, which eventually flows down to Yuma and down into Mexico. That system itself covers a big chunk of southeastern Arizona and into New Mexico, and it received very little snowpack this year.

Ted Simons: Wow, isn't that something.

Ted Simons: Stream flow obviously bad as you mentioned, you gave us an idea. How much worse than in previous years?

Dino DeSimone: Well, this is one of, again, the 10 worst records, worst winters on record that we have. As far as the overall snowpack and rainfall. And that translates into the stream flow. So again, that's -- I guess you could say the 10 worst records, as well.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned stream flow into reservoir storage, how much below normal are those reservoirs?

Dino DeSimone: Right now, I talked to my partners at Salt River Project today, and we're a little above half of storage capacity right now in the Salt and Verde reservoirs. They tell me we're okay. We get worried when we had three or four very dry winters in a row. We are approaching that. We did have an excellent winter a few years ago, some of us may recall. If we go two or three more winters like this it's not going look good. For right now the reservoirs are okay.

Ted Simons: Especially the Salt and Verde reservoir system, you said a little over half capacity. Compared to the 30-year average?

Dino DeSimone: The 30-year average we are at again a little over 50 percent, half of capacity. You can see that when you're out at the lakes. I was out there not too long ago at Roosevelt Lake, and you can see the bathtub ring. It's not where it was when it filled to capacity in 2010 when we had that excellent winter.

Ted Simons: Is it unusual to have it at capacity and then, what, three, four years later half or even less? That seems kind of unusual.

Dino DeSimone: That's just our first dependable splice in that surface water we like to use before we start to pump it out of the ground, which is much more expensive to do.

Ted Simons: I noticed the San Carlos reservoir was 11 percent of capacity, where is the water coming from for the San Carlos reservoir?

Dino DeSimone: That's part of the Gila system. That serves a large farming area in central, southeast Arizona. So that is a very particular hot spot because they depend almost entirely on that surface flow for much of that farmland.

Ted Simons: It's interesting, southeastern Arizona really didn't get much at all, did it?

Dino DeSimone: It's hurting this year.

Ted Simons: How do you go about taking these measurements?

Dino DeSimone: We do have automated sites that we've had for many years that measure the snowpack, how heavy it is and how much water it contains. But we still have a lot of manual sites. We go out every winter several times and take these snow tubes and measure the depth and weight of the snow and convert that into how much water is up in the mountains.

Ted Simons: From that you make the forecasts?

Dino DeSimone: Right. Step 2 is we take that information. And along with the soil conditions and the temperature conditions and the predictions for the next few weeks and months, that's where we come up with the stream flow forecast.

Ted Simons: So we've got the report, last report of the winter here. You've got the forecast and we certainly see what's happened here in the past. What is all of this telling us?

Dino DeSimone: Well, again, basically we are definitely in what our state committee is calling a drought at this time in the state. You have to keep in mind, when we say drought we're talking about both the land and the water supply we've been talking about. So the land is probably more critical right now. We have areas that are so dry right now, the soil is without moisture, and any plants that have been growing have started dying already. That is the main concern right now is what I call the ecological drought that is going on. The hydrological drought is more the water supplies get into the reservoirs. They are okay for now. But the land itself -- this is why you're hearing stories about the fire danger.

Ted Simons: And bark beetles and these sorts of things. You could have a boffo winter and get those reservoirs back up to a normal level but the land needs a lot more than just one big system.

Dino DeSimone: And we need that rainfall and snow spread out over time to keep the plants going. So what I'm telling folks is now is the time to be waterwise and firewise. Waterwise, we need to always conserve water living here in the desert. Firewise because those plants, if they are drying out you need to get them cleared from your property and save your properties.

Ted Simons: Very good information, good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

Dino DeSimone: Thanks, Ted, good to be here.

Dino DeSimone:USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service;

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