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Understanding What the ‘New Normal’ Means for Water in the West

Understanding What the ‘New Normal’ Means for Water in the West

After 20 years of drought conditions, some scientists are calling for better terminology to describe the impact of rising temperatures in the region.

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Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona is experiencing one of its lowest runoff years in history.Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

APRIL IS OFTEN a time of abundance in the mountains of the American West, when snowpack is at or near its peak, and forecasters work to determine how much runoff will course through our rivers and fill reservoirs later in the season.

This year, across much of the West, particularly the Southwest, there’s little in the way of abundance. At Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the West, runoff is predicted to be only 43 percent of average. Arizona is looking at one of its lowest runoff years in history. And in New Mexico, stretches of the Rio Grande have already run dry, months ahead of normal.

The only consolation is that last year was a wet year and reservoirs received a boost. While it’s typical in the West to have big swings in precipitation from year to year, what has concerned scientists lately is that even good years are no longer producing the kind of runoff seen historically.

It’s even prompted a group of scientists with the Colorado River Research Group to call for a new language to describe the conditions they’re seeing.

“There’s lots of talk of drought but there’s not enough talk that this is likely the new normal,” said Brad Udall, a member of the group and a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University. “We really need to think in the long term that we are actually going to see less water in the [Colorado River] basin and we’re never going back to the 20th century.”

And in the Southwest, this “new normal” may look more like “aridification” than drought.

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