Ted Simons: Salt River Project's reservoirs are looking good after record rainfall on the Salt and Verde watersheds this past winter. The rain, along with runoff from snowpack, helped push Roosevelt Lake to its highest point ever in late April at more than 2100 feet. Here with more is Charlie Ester, manager of S.R.P.'s water resource operations. Thanks for being here. Good to see you.
Charlie Ester: Hi, Ted.
Ted Simons: I assume they're looking good with all the rainfall and snowpack melt.
Charlie Ester: They're looking good. Virtually at capacity. We're starting to use the water now we're in summer. They're really full.
Ted Simons: The El Nino winter rain and snow, that was a big deal, wasn't it?
Charlie Ester: It was a big deal, especially given that the previous two years had sort of fooled us. We had a wet year that should have been dry and a dry year that should have been wet. Then we had this moderately strong El Nino, and we pretty much were fairly certain -- how is that for a waffle -- that it was going to be wet. Sure enough, it did turn out that way.
Ted Simons: The total rain on the watershed, 13 inches.
Charlie Ester: 13 inches. That was in a short period of time. Mainly from December, mid December to about the end of February. So in that period, it was roughly about 150% of normal. So it really came down quickly.
Ted Simons: I know there was some days in January where it seemed like we had monumental -- it's hard for me to remember this down here. But for the watershed, this sounds almost biblical in proportions.
Charlie Ester: It really was. The storm from January 21st through the 26th produced the greatest single storm event amount of precipitation ever in over 110 years of record. That went for the single day all the way up through the five-day accumulated totals, broke all records that we have. It truly was the largest storm in our history.
Ted Simons: Was this one of those storms -- not putting you on the spot here because I can't remember -- was it a warmer storm with lots of rain or a colder storm with lots of snow?
Charlie Ester: Whatever you like to call it because that’s what it was. It was warm and then it turned cold and turned colder than our forecasters thought. Lowered the snow levels dramatically and quickly and that limited the amount of immediate runoff. Had it been warm throughout the entire storm, the amount of water you would have seen here in the valley would have just been epic.
Ted Simons: That's my next question. It deals with releases from the reservoirs. How much has been released and how unusual is that number?
Charlie Ester: we let it go and couldn't store it, about 700,000-acre feet of water. To put that in perspective, saguaro lake, the lowest lake on the Salt, holds about 70,000, so ten times the size of saguaro lake. In terms of all-time spills, we had many years more than that. It was on the upper end.
Ted Simons: So ten saguaro lakes are released. Where does the water go?
Charlie Ester: It heads down the valley and makes its way towards painted rock which is near Gila Bend. That's a large flood control reservoir. About half of it gets lost between here and there. By lost, I mean it's no longer in the stream flow but It recharges the underground aquifers. It's truely not lost, it goes into the aquifer for dry years. The remainder of that that reached painted rock, a portion of it made it to Yuma. The greatest thing about that is the bureau of reclamation was able to provide some of that water for irrigation uses in the United States and Mexico and we ended up saving over a foot of water in Lake Mead. That doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're Las Vegas and every foot counts before your straw doesn't work anymore, that foot was really nice to have.
Ted Simons: Well, and that brings up my next question. As far as the El Nino situation, we got hit and we got hit hard and all the better for it. What's happening in the southwest region as a whole? What's happening in Colorado and Utah and New Mexico, these areas?
Charlie Ester: A great question, Ted. Unfortunately the answer is not as good. The El Nino drew a line right across the Arizona and New Mexico border. If you were south of that, you did fairly well, especially the salt and verde watersheds. The farther you get into Utah and Colorado, the dryer and dryer you got. Such that Colorado is having some of the worst conditions in a long time, The in-flow to Lake Powell this year is only supposed to be about 70% of normal.
Ted Simons: The water we're banking right now could come into play because, A, Colorado River water may not be doing that well in the future and, B, we may not be doing that well in the future.
Charlie Ester: You know, we live in this desert. One thing that is certain is dry conditions are going to come back. Any time we can get full reservoirs, it gives you just that little bit of pause that you can take a breath, a sigh of relief and say at least we're okay this year. Next year when the dry conditions come back, we'll just have to start over again.
Ted Simons: Will they come back? Are we seeing La Nina and seeing dryer winters?
Charlie Ester: The consensus right now is the Pacific Ocean conditions are trending towards La Nina. We may, in fact, have a weak La Nina this winter. Odds favor then we would have a dry winter this coming year.
Ted Simons: With that in mind, last question and I'm sure you get this question every single time. You know, I may not even ask. I'm not going to ask if the drought is over.
Charlie Ester: I knew that was going to be it.
Ted Simons: Is the drought over?
Charlie Ester: In terms of our water supply, immediately, I think the drought is fairly over. In terms of watershed conditions, water supply in the southwest, the effects on animals, on range conditions, we're not out of this drought yet. We need a couple more years before we can say the drought is truly over. But then again the next one to start. We just need to be prepared.
Ted Simons: Sounds like we're prepared. Good to have you on the show. Thanks.
Charlie Ester: Thank you.