Lackluster El Nino results in less water runoff than expected


El Nino 2016 started out with promise for bringing moisture to the Arizona area but has resulted in the sixth consecutive year of below-median runoff into the Salt and Verde rivers.

The two reservoirs on the Verde River are at a combined 42 percent of capacity, down from 52 percent a year ago.

“The good news is that we understand that we live in a desert, and we plan accordingly,” Charlie Ester, Salt River Project manager of surface water resources. “That means we plan for dry winters even when the conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise, like last winter. I would much rather be surprised with water in storage I wasn’t planning for than to have the reservoirs be lower than expected."

“The better news is that we are still in good shape after six consecutive years of below-median runoff and more than 20 years of drought in central Arizona,” Ester said.

Tree-ring studies by the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, which compared data from the Salt and Verde and the Colorado River watersheds over the last 1,200 to 1,500 years, have shown that 20 and 30 year droughts are common in the area, as are wet years surrounded by long periods of drought.

To keep as much surface water as possible in the reservoirs, SRP pumps water from underground wells.

“We are right in the middle of our peak water-demand time of the year, and our system is doing exactly what it is designed to do – store water during wet years for these kinds of dry periods,” Ester said.

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