By Marjie Brown
Inc for Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed
Winter Is Here. So Is Your Beer. Once again, it’s time for winterplay — days of slipping, sliding, riding, skating and otherwise zooming across the frosty landscape, cruising on the carpet of glistening crystalline water that make it all possible.
That source of recreational joy also is your drinking water and the main ingredient in some of our favorite post-winterplay beverages. When that precious snow melts, it produces streamflow that feeds rivers, lakes and faucets. Mountain snowpack provides 60 percent to 80 percent of all freshwater on earth. Most Coloradans depend on high mountain snowpack for our household water. It also provides for irrigation, livestock, recreation, industrial applications, and it supports our thriving Front Range breweries. About 40 percent of our water comes from the highest 20 percent of the land. We aren’t the only ones reliant on Colorado’s high country watersheds. We also deliver water to 18 other states and Mexico. The four major river systems that originate in our mountains flow to one-third of the landmass of the lower 48 states.
Mountain Snowpack: Our Water Storage Tank
In the previous century, our legendary Colorado snowpack was reliably ample, with pockets of snow often lingering at higher altitudes well into the following autumn. But climate change is upon us, bringing drought, warmer temperatures and warmer, shorter winters.
These days, when we’re lucky, the jet stream cooperates by taking a deep, southward dive, carving out a blue V of cold air over Colorado on the national weather map. Then a low-pressure system east of the Rockies pumps moisture up to us from the Gulf of Mexico and wraps it into the cold air. When these meteorological stars align, snowpack stacks up deep in the mountains, and thaws gradually in spring and summer to fill our creeks, rivers, lakes and glasses.
Some additional details also determine snowpack condition. Little shifts can make the difference between a banner year for our water supply or drought-driven bust. If the soil is already dry when winter arrives, it absorbs snowmelt rather than storing the water in snowpack, where it can flow to our faucets in spring. When winters are warm with much of our precipitation falling as rain, that water can’t be harnessed for the benefits we rely on the rest of the year. If storms are infrequent or dry, we don’t build any snowpack at all. When temperatures rise too much or too fast in spring, snow melts quicker than our watersheds can handle, creating a fire hose of flow rather than the gradual release to our ecosystems.
Snowpack Also Affects Fire
Air temperature and humidity are the drivers of the water content in our snow. Skiers and snowboarders live for the fluffy, floaty sweetness of dry snow. Fighting through 10 inches of heavy, wet snow doesn’t quite ring our chimes like the glory of floating through dry powder. But it’s the wet stuff that really fills our reservoirs and coffee pots. It produces more water from less snow. Twelve inches of wet snow can provide up to 1.5 inches of water. The same depth of powder might yield less than an inch.
All that moisture from our snowpack does not just feed our rivers, it also makes a big difference for our forests. Warmer, drier winters result in a smaller snowpack and one that will melt and runoff earlier than usual. Early snowmelt can lead to a longer fire season, drier soils and fuels that are ready to ignite. This was one of the many factors that fueled the High Park Fire — by the end of May 2012, 100 percent of the state was in classified in drought. But we can still have bad wildfire season even if winter is wet when we have a really dry, hot summer. Think of our snowpack as a savings account – it is critical to get you through a dry spell, but sometimes it is just not enough.
Currently, snowpack in the Poudre is doing reasonably well – at or close to median levels for this time of year. You can check out our snow levels at the Snotel website (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/co/snow/products/). And we still have a few months to go before we typically get our biggest snowfalls. The next time a Colorado blizzard makes your life inconvenient, uncomfortable or messy, take a deep breath and remember — that’s your shower, beer, swimming hole, and garden water bending your wiper blades as it builds up in icy chunks. Our communities and ecosystems need every single flake.
The Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed is a local nonprofit whose mission is to improve and maintain the ecological health of the Poudre River watershed through community collaboration. For more information visit www.poudrewatershed.org.
Interested in volunteering on a forest restoration project or signing up to volunteer with CPRW’s new citizen science water quality monitoring program? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information.