As record snowpack melts, West braces for flooding

Posted: Jun 5, 2011

Written by

Greenwire
Lake Mead

States across the West are bracing for major flooding as record mountain snowpack starts melting, threatening to overflow the Pacific Northwest's network of dams.

Randy Julander, a supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said this year's flooding could be the worst he has ever seen.

"It's all just sitting there, sitting there, sitting there. Everyone knows it's going to come down, it's just when and how quick that we're waiting for," he said.

At the 500-foot-tall Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, giant cascades of water are being released to make room for the expected flow. So much water is being released so quickly that millions of fish are in danger. The heavy flows through dam spillways pick up dangerous levels of nitrogen from the air, and the gas bubbles can give fish the equivalent of the bends. A fish farm near the dam said an estimated 100,000 fish are dying each day and has sued to slow down the flows.

The heavy flow of water through the dams has also created a surplus of hydroelectric power. To deal with the glut, the main provider of electricity in the Northwest ordered a shutdown of the region's wind farms because the grid cannot handle all the extra power.

Sacramento, which federal officials say has the highest risk of flood of any U.S. city outside of New Orleans, faces flooding caused by deep snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada after a warm rain. Such an event could overload Northern California's giant system of dams and flood bypasses, straining ancient levees to the breaking point.

But the extra water is good news for the parched Southwest, where runoff making its way into the Colorado River Basin is the first significant water increase for Lake Mead in more than 10 years.

Lake Mead feeds water to Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. Its water elevation has dropped 100 feet over the past decade, and officials feared potential water shortages by the end of this year if the trend continued.

"It really takes us back from the brink and gives us a little bit of breathing room," said Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman Scott Huntley.



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