Dry winter taking its toll on Bartlett, Horseshoe lakes

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by Catherine Holland

Video report by Bruce Haffner

Posted on February 15, 2012 at 10:46 AM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 15 at 11:01 AM

Map: Bartlett Lake
Horseshoe Lake

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BARTLETT LAKE, Ariz. -- It's been another dry winter in Arizona and it's having a very visible effect on two of the Valley's water reservoirs. Bartlett Lake is just 37 percent full, while the Horseshoe Lake just north is virtually empty.

Both Bartlett and Horseshoe are on the Verde River, which runs for about 195 miles. There are another four reservoirs, including the huge Roosevelt Lake on the Salt River system. Roosevelt holds more water than the other five lakes combined.

The four lakes on the Salt River are much fuller than the two on the smaller Verde River system. In fact, Horse Mesa, Mormon Flat and Stewart Mountain are all listed at more that 90 percent of capacity while Roosevelt is at 67 percent.

According to Salt River Project's Daily Water Report for Wednesday, the total reservoir system is at 66 percent of capacity. A year ago it was at 87 percent.

Because the Verde River lakes are smaller, they empty faster that the Salt River reservoirs. By the same token, they also fill faster.

Those who use Bartlett Lake for recreation are concerned at about the water level. It's so low that both ramps are closed and only small fishing boats can go out.

According to Scott Harelson of SRP, which manages the reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers, Bartlett Lake is normally low this time of year. Last year, we had a dry winter, which means this winter would have had to been above average in terms of rain and snow just to break even. So far, that's not happening.

"We're in the middle of La Nina, which is typically a dry time for this part of the Southwest," he explained to Bruce Haffner, who flew over the Bartlett Lake in the Fort McDowell Casino News Chopper.

Because Bartlett and Horseshoe lakes are relatively small, they tend to fill relatively quickly. A solid storm that brings rain to the Valley and sparks runoff from the high country could fill them in as little as a couple of days. The storm systems we need for that, however, aren't in the forecast.

Harelson said there's not much SRP can do. It's really up to the Mother Nature.

"The hope I would give to people is the same hope we have -- that Mother Nature provides us with runoff this runoff season," Harelson said. "It's been very dry, as you know. It was dry last year and that's had an impact on water levels this year at Bartlett.

"It's not unusual for Bartlett to be low at this time of year," he continued.

While we saw some good rain and snow in December, but it's been dry since. 3TV Meteorologist April Warnecke said the Valley is about 1.25 inches behind on rainfall this year -- already.

Harelson said SRP is hoping for some good snowfall before winter comes to a close. The more snowpack we have, the more runoff we'll get.

Harelson said that while he doesn't have official projections yet, the snowpack we have now probably won't provide enough runoff to bring Bartlett Lake up to 100 percent capacity.

Still, he's hopeful that it will fill enough to accommodate some events that are scheduled for mid-May.

While recreational activities are a great byproduct of the reservoir system -- and Bartlett Lake, which is about 48 miles from downtown Phoenix, is a popular recreation site -- the primary purpose of the reservoirs is to store water for the Phoenix metropolitan area -- a total of 10 cities, including Gilbert, Chandler, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Peoria, Avondale, Phoenix, Glendale and Tolleson.

"For operational flexibility, we provide the cities' water supply generally from the Verde River at this point and then when we start to get runoff, which we hope we get in the winter and spring time, Bartlett refills, and Horseshoe, as well," Harelson explained.

The runoff season typically goes through March, so the water levels at Bartlett and Horseshoe lakes should slowly rise as the snow starts melting. Everything depends on that runoff.

"Full reservoirs are good news for water users," Harelson said. "We're crossing our fingers."

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