WESTERN SLOPE – The Colorado River Basin is losing water at an ever-accelerating rate, and snow scientist Chris Landry wants people to know about it.
But spend a day with Landry, and you will accumulate more questions than answers: How much snow falls (or doesn’t); how dense and water-laden it is (or isn’t); and is there enough of it to reflect surface radiation back into the atmosphere and preserve it, or is it destined to continue to melt away earlier every coming year?
Each winter since 2003, Landry, the director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, a research organization in Silverton, has been on the job at his two research plots, Swamp Angel and Senator Beck Basin, near the summit of Red Mountain Pass. Here, Landry digs over 100 snow pits over the course of each winter to observe the layers of dust that accumulate on this outlying garrison of Colorado mountain ranges.
On January 2, at the inauspicious start of the 2012 snow year, Landry and I made our way on thin, icy crust to the lower site. Swamp Angel was cordoned off to leave an area of snow undisturbed for the snow pits Landry needs. A weir in a nearby creek would measure the snow-runoff as spring comes. The data would be compared to “dust events” – windstorms that deposit layers of dust in a snowpack – to help determine how quickly snow is disappearing in a given season. In the center of Landry’s plot is a research tower, hung with instruments, making it look like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, monitoring everything from reflected radiation to snow depth. We carefully circumambulated the perimeter, and Landry chose a pit site, carefully digging, measuring and cataloging feedback from a scant 77 centimeters of snow.
According to Landry, “Thirty years of data is what it takes to start to understand the change in precipitation regimes and ultimately, regional climate change.” Landry is on the leading edge of snow science that is trying to determine whether everyone (and if not, who) downstream will continue to have enough fresh water.
With each wind event, the Colorado Plateau has been depositing layers of dirt on mountain snow-packs. Over the course of the last eight winters here, Landry has counted and logged the dirt-darkened layers, which will produce accelerated melting when exposed to sunlight in the spring.
The key question is how to anticipate an increasingly capricious stream flow, and then parse out water accordingly, to ranchers, agriculturists and municipalities.
If the question itself weren’t daunting enough, Landry and the CSAS are feeling the strain from a lack of funding. Proper research can be costly. Squinting through a hand lens at snow crystals, Landry said, “We have to keep it [the research] going well – not just with duct tape and bailing wire.”
At the same time Landry is digging in Colorado, Tom Painter, a snow hydrologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by the California Institute of Technology, is explaining to his mystified neighbors in Pasadena (on a 70 degree afternoon) why snow hydrology is important to the Los Angles Basin. If there wasn’t enough water available from snowmelt, Painter tells them, “Only four hundred thousand people could live here, instead of 15 million.” And the problem wouldn’t end there. The states downstream from the headwaters of the Colorado River, with the major population centers of Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Phoenix, are all impacted by something as seemingly simple as how and when snow melts.
Landry and Painter, who have both worked on setting up the Red Mountain study sites, are grappling with the growing hullaballoo about dust in snow-packs and regional climate change, to better ascertain the future of water, our most essential and powerful commodity.
Their study of snow hydrology is not an esoteric arm of science with concerns about some long-distant, “might-happen” event, but instead centers on what Painter believes is not only a current lurking shortage, but one with potentially devastating consequences for the American West.
The juggernaut of western water as it pertains to premature snowmelt is emblematic, Painter said, “of similar processes in other parts of the world.” Though most people may not realize it, 75 percent of the water in the western U.S. comes from mountain snowmelt. Globally, two billion people, nearly one-third of the world’s population, get their fresh water from mountain snow and ice.
Painter rattles off a troubling list of sites where dust is affecting snow-packs, predominantly in central Asia. Lake and ice core samples in the Himalaya show a four-fold increase in dust since the 1800s. The Caucasus Mountains that form the dividing line between Asia and Europe have had a seven-fold increase in atmospheric dust content since the early 20th century. The 1930s saw an increase in sheep-ranching throughout Patagonia; as a result, the Pampas are becoming denuded, and the Antarctic Peninsula is receiving dust layers hundreds of miles across the Southern Ocean, past Cape Horn.
Then there is groundwater pumping in western Afghanistan, which Painter says is a “huge producer of dust to the Hindu Kush,” the mountain range that tops out at 25,289 feet. And finally, there is the shrinking Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake, and now considered one of the world’s “worst environmental disasters,” as a result of Soviet diversion of all incoming water. The loss of lake-water has caused local climate change, and created hotter, drier summers and dust deposits in the distant Tien Shan Range in Kyrgyzstan.
Even as these changes are taking place around the globe, there are only two spots in the world where the science is sophisticated enough to start untangling what the changes mean: in the Uncompahgre and Dallas Creek watersheds in the San Juans, and at the headwaters of the Tuolomne River (above Hetch Hetchy Dam) in California. In both places, science is taking on the conundrum of dust deposits on snowmelt, and how this has altered the timing of runoff. There are a few sites in Europe where dust is being monitored, but because they are inherently wetter latitudes, these places don’t see the effects as immediately as does the western U.S.
According to Painter, “Winter can be as much as 35 days shorter,” depending on dust deposits; in 2009, that number jumped to an astonishing 50 days. Finding enough water to store for agricultural needs is becoming a big problem, in both the Colorado River Basin and in California’s Central Valley, which yields $20 billion worth of produce each year, and where the growing season can’t be altered to fit an increasingly early, truncated runoff.
There are two types of reservoir systems, Painter explained: manmade dams, where outlets are carefully controlled, or the reservoir of a mountain snowpack. One is predictable, the other is not, but both are necessary to adequately supply our demands for water.
A Brief Primer on Western Water Law
Water agreements between states specifically spell out allocations and hierarchies, should shortages become severe at some point. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact was agreed upon by the seven Basin States to apportion the water available. It was controversial, but then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who also chaired the Colorado River Commission, signed the document. At the time, the amount of water was estimated at 16.4 million acre-feet per year. That turned out to be a wildly optimistic estimate. In the intervening years, that number was proven to be much lower, even with the pre-Dust Bowl years experiencing substantially greater rainfall. Today, the reality is that the Colorado River produces closer to 13.5 million acre ft. per year.
The upshot is, there’s not enough water in the river to meet the original agreement (factor in Mexico as well, which gets 1.5 million acre feet annually). In 2001, Bruce Babbitt, then-Secretary of the Interior, signed an agreement that fended off a water riot. In 2007, the agreement was restructured because of ongoing deficits; it will have to be fully renegotiated in 2026.
Back at Home
When spring arrives, Landry will have spent a winter of long hours and repeated trips to the research sites on Red Mountain Pass, often working solo. Painter is grateful for Landry’s work, of which he says, “It is something Chris does so well.”
As the snow melts, Painter will come east to Colorado from Pasadena for another “field campaign.” This year he will take his research to another level, conducting aerial surveys with laser sensors to monitor groundcover and establishing baseline elevation data for all future “flyovers.” The sensors will “ping the earth at the speed of light” as they fly across the West, from the Tuolomne River Basin in California, over the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau to the San Juans, Painter said. “This Airborne Snow Observatory will measure snow depth and snow albedo [the reflectivity of the snow surface] across mountain basins. These measurements will allow unprecedented understanding of the snowmelt process and the response to dust’s effects.”
Painter’s LIDAR system will see with such detail that it can determine the vegetation coverage right down to the small bunch grasses that stabilize soil. It’s futuristic stuff, he enthused, “Much like Star Trek. This is approaching Star Trek measurements.”
The flights will also survey the damage from a 2007 fire in Utah’s West Desert; the largest fire in the state’s history, it burned so hot that the surface crusts were destroyed. As a result, when cold fronts sweep through, dust from the burn, coupled with sand from the Sevier Lake playa further north, blows prodigious amounts of dust toward the Wasatch Range above Salt Lake City and points east.
From their two corners of the West, Painter and Landry share the same objective: to follow the dust, by collaborating on data and research sites. The work, Painter says, is part of his dream job at JPL, in summery Pasadena. No doubt, their experiments in the future will expand, and become more effective. As they do, new questions will arise. Even so, the jury is out, on whether we will have the 30 years Landry says it will take to vet the data, and if that’s time enough to figure out how to save and share the water we all desperately need.
For additional information on Landry’s Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, visit http://www.snowstudies.org/. To see Painter on YouTube explaining the basic points of his research, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7n6GGJZeHAY.