After a historic winter with prolific snowfalls, is the American West out of its drought dilemmas? The short answer, maybe, but it’s complicated. In the short-term, much of the West will return to non-drought conditions–many reservoirs are filling up, snowpacks are melting (maybe too fast), and summer flows look to be at much better levels. But, the question for the long-term–is this record snowpack enough to defend against future droughts, which are expected to increase and intensify with climate change? Also, will snowpacks and consistent flows result in strong salmon, steelhead runs throughout the west? Let’s see.

First off, drought conditions across much of the western United States have declined substantially compared to this time last year. The legendary atmospheric rivers and frequent and deep powder days resulted in many western regions seeing snow accumulations exceed 150% and even 200% of average. This moisture couldn’t have come at a more needed time. Just take a look at these US Drought Monitor maps:

2022 VS 2023

California and Utah were completely inundated with “extreme drought”. You likely recall the headlines in 2022 of California Department Fish and Wildlife quite literally trucking millions of salmon smolts out to the ocean, as river conditions were so horrendous, or California’s closed salmon season this year due to years of prolonged drought. Unfortunately, this is not a zero sum equation–one year without drought and a return to normal moisture conditions does not suddenly cure the impacts of previous years’ droughts.

No, and especially when dealing with salmon and steelhead, this abnormally wet year provides fish and wildlife population the opportunity to rebuild, but those ecosystems and stocks are still struggling to keep up.

Just a couple days ago, Aspen Public Radio published a great piece describing this idea. “On June 23, the water was 50 percent higher than it was at the same time last year, flowing twice as fast, according to a sensor monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey. Provisional data shows the water was colder, too, by a few degrees Celsius. That’s all good news for the fish that call these waters home — at least for now.”

The article goes on to highlight a quote from Clay Ramsey, a fisheries biologist with the White River National Forest, in an interview in the U.S. Forest Service office in Aspen.

“My impression is that it’s a good year in a bad pattern. It gives all these animals a year to get off a strong age class, and kind of brace themselves for the next round of drought. So it’s really kind of a gift to the streams and all the critters that live in it.”

However, elsewhere in the West the sentiments are not so hopeful.

A scorched hillside, Josh Duplechian

If you go back up to the drought condition images, you can see that the PNW is not as saturated as the rest of the West. Kirk Blaine, the Southern Oregon Coordinator for the Native Fish Society is dialed when it comes to conditions and recovery efforts in this zone. “Well, conditions are horrible! We had an awesome snowpack but lost it immediately,” explained Kirk.

“I spoke with a biologist earlier this week, and he is stumped to where all the water went. Long story short, we were incredibly hopeful that this great snowpack would stabilize and provide flows long into the summer to help our anadromous fish species, but that didn’t happen. The North Umpqua is already at late summer flows; it’s not looking good, and a thermal migration barrier is pretty much locked in the lower North Umpqua and mainstem until we get fall rains.”

As a reminder, in 2021, North Umpqua summer steelhead experienced the lowest escapement estimates in the 70 year time series. This stock, as well as many other distinct populations of salmonids in the PNW are struggling due to so many confounding factors.

The other aspect to consider is how many different stakeholders use water and how they all vie for allocations–even in a wet year. Despite California reservoirs filling up to near 100%, issues remain. Take the Shasta system, for example. “Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, filled to nearly 100 percent capacity in May 2023, reaching levels not seen for four years.” Shasta River Steward Andy Marx, has been fighting for better water management on the Shasta for decades and, even in this wet year, is worried about the system and its anadromous fish.

“Because the Shasta dipped below 50 cfs on a couple occasions during June, the junior water rights on the Shasta have already been cut off,” said Marx. “Despite the curtailment minimum some greedy diverter(s) just sucked it down to 35 cfs. There is little to stop these diverters who are willing to ignore the curtailment law; last year’s Shasta Water Association stunt that dropped the river to critical lows cost each member a whopping 50 bucks.”

How are conditions looking on your home waters? While all this snow is certainly improving aquatic habitats and filling up reservoirs throughout the west, how snow melts is an essential piece of the puzzle, as is the fact that one good year will not overcome several extremely dry years. Time will tell, if the salmon and steelhead that have survived this long have a productive spawn, and if conditions allow for high smolt survivability. Also, as you get out on the water this summer, be sure to monitor water temperatures–

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