Low snowpack could spell water troubles for western US

World Today

It’s been a dry winter, and now spring, in large portions of the western United States. Snowpack numbers are well below average in many mountain areas and parts of several states are now in “exceptional drought” status.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports that could spell trouble in the region if significant rain doesn’t fall soon.

Brian Domonkos and Karl Wetlaufer are with the Colorado Snow Survey Program. Each winter and spring their work takes them into the mountains to measure snow depths first-hand.

“I absolutely love it,” said Domonkos, who is a supervisor with CSSP. “It’s one of my favorite portions of the job.”

What they’ve found this season is pretty disappointing to some. Colorado’s mountain snowpack was just 66 percent of the norm when last measured in early April. And this state is not alone.

“Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico particularly are really seeing very low snowpack,” said Domonkos.

This past winter saw fewer storms than normal in large parts of the U.S. west. Combine that, experts said, with a planet that’s significantly warmer than it was three to four decades ago

“And that’s started us down a path where this region is just drier than it used to be,” remarked Doug Kenney, Western Water Policy Program Director.

The dryness that the University of Colorado Boulder’s Kenney refers to is reflected in a U.S. drought map. The darkest shades denote areas currently in extreme or exceptional drought status. Kenney said the Colorado River system, which supplies water to nearly 40 million Americans, has enjoyed much less snowmelt than it typically does.

“A year like this makes people in Arizona nervous, makes people in Los Angeles nervous, people in Las Vegas nervous,” said Kenney. “Just ‘cause it erodes their long-term water supply.”

Some reservoirs are half-empty. Farmers and ranchers who depend on water from streams that are fed by snowmelt could be in trouble this year. And that’s not all.

One big concern is aquatic life. After all, fish need water every day. Depleted streams could seriously impact fish habitat.

Lean snowfall has already hurt ski resorts. A report from the organization, Protect Our Winters, found that low snowfall years in the U.S. resulted in 5.5 million fewer skier visits each year and over $1 billion less in revenues.

“It used to be at Thanksgiving we had booming holidays at resorts and now resorts are lucky if they’re able to open by Thanksgiving,” said Lindsay Bourgoine with Protect Our Winters.

“What we make is those high snowfall years isn’t enough to offset what we lose in those low snowfall years.”

Kenney said, just like in drought-plagued places like Australia and South Africa, water conservation in the U.S. west will be critical going forward.

“This isn’t a case where we just hunker down for a year or two and things will all get better,” said Kenney.

“The world is changing. We have to adapt to it.” It’s a long-term challenge he said. And these snow depth numbers are yet another reminder.