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Shallow spring runoff could cause water woes everywhere

By SCOTT CANON - The Kansas City Star Date: 03/27/01 22:15

Scott Canon/The Kansas City Star

CHOTEAU, Mont. -- Ray Mills has tramped through these mountain passes every winter since the Johnson administration.

Rarely have his snowshoes padded over such little snow.

Last week, he plunged a hollow aluminum pole into the frosty crust, checked the depth and hoisted the cylinder of snow with a scale to weigh the water trapped inside.

"Holy cow. We should be at 21 (inches of precipitation) and we're only at 14.8," said Mills, 63, and recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service. "That's pretty darn dry."

On a Rocky Mountain slope where 4 feet of snow typically piles by mid-March, he finds barely 2 feet. Higher up the mountainside where history suggests there should be 6 feet, there's less than 4. And so on.

Winter snow fills streams in spring. Those tributaries feed reservoirs stretched across Montana and the Dakotas. Those catch basins, in turn, release the water that irrigates Nebraska fields, that cools power plants in Kansas and Missouri, that supplies drinking water for Kansas City and scores of other communities, and that floats barges catering to Midwestern farmers.

Without more snow in Ray Mills' mountain passes, come June there may not be enough water to go around.

It's the second year of a drought in the Missouri River basin, one unlikely to pass with the spring thaw.

Experts say there's still time for more mountain snow. And a rainy spring could lessen the drought. But the best chance to avoiding a dusty disaster rests in deep, deep snow on the Rockies, which this year looks as if it won't be deep enough.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- struggling to balance the water needs of bait shops in South Dakota against endangered fish and bird species downstream against the shipping industry -- already has mapped out a plan for a more shallow Missouri River in the spring, summer and fall of 2001.

Barges toting fertilizer and grain under the Broadway Bridge, as a result, will lighten their loads. That makes each trip less efficient and the cost of getting a harvest to market pricier.

The story is much the same throughout the West and Northwest. In the Columbia River basin, for instance, valuable snowpack is averaging more than a third below normal.

So at Grand Coulee Dam, Craig Sprankle looks out his Bureau of Reclamation office window into Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake and sees a reservoir increasingly in need of water. His agency must balance the needs of game fish against endangered salmon, irrigation against flood control and recreation.

This year it must do so without much water and fast-growing demand for the energy captured by Grand Coulee Dam generators to ease California's electrical blackouts. And it's a balance cut in bargains between a half dozen federal agencies, a handful of state governments and a collection of American Indian tribes.

"Just because it's a dry year doesn't put a stop to the demand," he said. "You still need water for all these different purposes...This year, everybody will have something to be unhappy about."

East across the Continental Divide in western Montana, the paltry snowfall matters to more than just operators of the few local ski runs and dude ranches along U.S. 89 between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

Not that they're happy. The ski trade is off. Meanwhile, dude rancher and wilderness outfitter Chuck Blixrud worries that the scarcity of snow now will increase fire danger in the summer.

"If we don't have a wet spring," said the veteran of 42 ranching seasons, "it could be bad."

The danger of forest fires cut short his season last year while the West suffered one of its worst wildfire seasons in years.

Nearby farmers and ranchers recently collected $13,000 to pay self-described rain maker Matthew Ryan to conjure precipitation by harnessing electrical charges in the air to draw weather systems to the region.

"People here are getting desperate," said Gary Gollohen, a Brady, Mont., barley farmer who pitched in $2,000 for the effort. "We're just basically without water, and water's the key thing to making things work up here." Ryan said Tuesday his work there should provide results in a month or two.

By most any measure, snow -- and water -- are in short supply.

Consider the series of dam-made reservoirs along the Missouri River. Normally this time of year, the system would hold just over 57 million acre feet of water. This year it stores just 49.5 million acre feet. (An acre foot is enough water to cover an acre a foot deep. An acre foot supplies roughly enough water for 10 urban Americans for a year.)

More striking is the water reserves frozen into snow and ice in the Rocky Mountains. In an average year, the spring runoff provides 25 million acre feet. This year, the snowfall is on course to melt into less than 20 million acre feet. That's made worse because last year's snow was so pitiful, just 16.5 million acre feet.

"It's a dramatic difference," said Larry Cieslik, chief of Missouri River basin water management for the Corps of Engineers. "It's a sizable amount of water."

In some places, the effects of the drought are already felt acutely. Take Shenandoah, Iowa, where water has been scarce for several years. The town of 5,500 draws from small, natural underground storage, which is quickly running dry.

So this year the city council kick-started a plan to build a reservoir on a creek feeding the Nishnabotna River to cover such dry times. But it will take at least five years to build and fill.

That means this year there will be no washing cars with the garden hose. No watering the lawn or garden. And because filling the city's new swimming pool would nearly exhaust Shenandoah's water reserves, it will stay empty this year.

"It was a gut-wrenching decision for the city council," said city administrator Bo Harris, "but there wasn't really a choice."

Upstream in the Missouri basin, economic vitality often rises and falls with the river level.

In North Dakota, concerns grow with each dry day that reservoir levels will be too low for boat launches, that the shallow water will become too warm and harm game fish, that irrigation pumps will be able to suck in only air.

"And when it gets this bad, it can take years for things to get right again," said Todd Sando, director of water development for the North Dakota State Water Commission.

Back in northwest Montana, Mills thinks back on all the snow-measuring trips he's taken. He made his 100th trek of 80 back-country miles in February and thinks of only a few years that were so dry. The scientists who combine his reports with those from remote mechanical devices, in fact, say the snow could be a record low this year.

"I believe it," Mills said. "Without some more snow or a really wet spring, there's going to be trouble."

To reach Scott Canon, national correspondent, call (816) 234-4754 or send e-mail to,local/37753c32.327,.html

-- Martin Thompson (, March 28, 2001

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