Snowpack near average this winter, but water concerns persist for Arizona

PHOENIX (FOX 10) -- With hours to spare on Thursday, state lawmakers finally agree on a groundwater management plan that was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey has since signed.

The plan allows Arizona to join a multi-state plan to conserve water from the Colorado River, in the face of a prolonged drought. It will, however, also mean cuts to some water supplies for farmers. Most residents won't see restrictions on their water use.

2018 turned out to be the driest winter for Arizona's mountain watersheds, as reservoirs saw historic low levels due to an extreme drought. The news is raising a lot of concerns regarding the state's water supply, and despite the new contingency plan, some are wondering whether the situation is getting worse, or if things are looking better for 2019.

The winter months can be busy for a team of hydrologists with the Salt River Project, as they are sent out to measure accumulated snow. They start from the White Mountains, make their way across the Mogollon Rim, and up to Flagstaff and near Williams.

"Snowpack is very indicative of how much precipitation has fell on the watershed in Northern Arizona," said Andrew Volkmer. "It gives us an idea of how much we can predict, how much water we can predict that will go into the reservoirs."

Volkmer and Stephen Flora were on a trip up north, as they head out to survey the Verde River watershed. FOX 10 met up with the duo in Happy Jack, walking to a so-called "Snotel Site".

A "Snotel Site" Is a station where snow and precipitation data is collected and transmitted automatically into a central database multiple times during a day. Flora and Volkmer are there to make sure everything is lining up as they're supposed to.

"So, we were out here on January 11, 2019, and it has all the previous readings. There were 13 inches of snow on the pillow," said Volkmer.

To measure snowpack, Volkmer uses a metal rod called a "Federal Snow Sampler". The snow measured 15 inches, and from there, they figure out the snow water equivalent. It's a measurement of how much water is present in a snowpack, if melted. Then, Flora does a little math to figure out the density, and jots down some notes.

60% of Arizona's total runoff into the reservoirs happens during the Winter months. According to Flora and Volkmer, snowpack levels currently stand near average.

"We have reached a good point between the wet October and the storms we've had here in December and January," said Flora. "We've reached the amount of precipitation where we start to see more productive runoff."

That will add to the streams and recharge groundwater. Just a year ago, record low inflows were reported in the reservoirs, and so far this year, Arizona is in good shape. Although Mother Nature has been cooperating with the state so far this winter, it's still too early in the season to draw conclusions from recent storms.

"El Nino is a good indicator of how much precipitation we are going to get, but it's not perfect," said Volkmer. "In 2016, they called it the Godzilla El Nino year, and we were below average with precipitation. So, it's really hard to put all your eggs in El Nino basket."

They're still forecasting a normal winter in terms of snowpack levels, but it doesn't mean we are completely in the clear.

"This definitely helps alleviate some of the short-term effects, but it will definitely take several years of above average snowpack and wet winters to help alleviate some of the long-term drought that we've seen over the last 20 years," said Flora.

Both Flora and Volkmer say there are going to be drier years than others, and the state should always be concerned. That's why there should always be a plan set in place.

"Despite having the lowest runoff we saw last year to the reservoirs, our reservoirs are still at 50% full or near 50% full right now," said Volkmer.

SRP sends a crew to survey snow two times a month during the winter season, they have a few more trips to make before early April.