Arid American West is chilly, waterlogged Rains, heavy snows prevail for 2 months

January 18, 1993|By Timothy Egan | Timothy Egan,New York Times News Service

DEVIL'S SLIDE, Utah -- This winter the American West is a stranger. From Southern California and Arizona, where nearly a year's amount of precipitation has fallen in just six weeks, to the avalanche-bruised canyons of the Rockies, the land is heavy with the scarcest of Western commodities: water.

Westerners have come to expect certain things: The sun will usually shine, there is never enough water and on rare occasions the ground will move. But after nearly two months of record rainfall, smothering snow and abnormal temperatures, the first two of these defining pillars have washed away, at least for the time being.

For more than 30 million people in the West who depend on mountain snow for hydroelectric sustenance, the storms may not be enough to change government water allocations. Reservoirs, which have not been full for nearly a decade, must be brimming with spring runoff for officials to meet all the water demands of the West.

But this winter newcomers from cities near sea level who have built homes in mountain valleys that look benign in August have seen their roofs collapse with snow and have given up hope of starting their cars until spring.

"I walked outside the other day, took a deep breath, and it hurt so bad I thought I was going to die on the spot," said Carla Young, who 18 months ago moved from Hawaii to Kalispell in northwestern Montana, near Glacier National Park.

At the same time, people who have learned to live with three-minute showers and a lawn the color of desert sand are wondering about the small river that their street has become. Yuma, Ariz., one of the driest cities in the nation with an average annual rainfall of a little more than four inches a year, has received 840 percent of its normal precipitation since Dec. 1.

The Great American Desert, as settlers called the arid basin, is a sponge.

Arizona, like much of the West, gets water from places far removed from its own state, relying on a network of canals and gravity-defying diversion pipes to suck melting water from alpine snowpacks, sending it to golf courses in cactus country. When it rains heavily and persistently in the desert, the water gathers quickly and roars through dry riverbeds.

Nine of Arizona's 15 counties were in flood danger over the weekend.

All last week National Guard units have been hauling snow from city streets in Utah, where license plates read, "Greatest Snow on Earth."

Great indeed: On Wednesday, the roof collapsed on one of Salt Lake City's oldest libraries. No one was injured but about 20,000 books were buried. The same day Salt Lake's monthly snow total reached 42 inches -- the highest for any January on record. Walls of gravel-flecked snow 6 feet high line the streets.

Devil's Slide, a small notch in the Wasatch Range northeast of TC Salt Lake, has lived up to its name; avalanches have ripped away big flanks of the steep snow walls on either side of it. The snow is 3 feet deep on some roofs, a weight equal to about 14 cars.

A few miles away, John Brown, who has lived in the high reaches of the Rocky Mountains all his life, was using a bulldozer to clear his driveway. "This stuff don't bother me a bit," said Mr. Brown, his cowboy hat dusted with snow. "It's more like the winters we used to have before everything changed."

Some meteorologists say the weather this year is normal. What's unusual, they say, is the last decade or so, when winters seemed like a postcard in the Rocky Mountains and like the Mediterranean in California.

The history of the West is so short, in the larger span of time, that nobody may know what the weather is really supposed to be like.

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