Winter Waxing Moon
Our first major snowstorm of the season is upon us. We’ve gotten 4 or 5 inches already and it’s only been snowing since midnight. May get 8-10 inches. Black Mountain has disappeared behind a gray-blue curtain, the lodgepoles look like flocked Christmas trees, and our solar panels have a 4 inch white blanket between themselves and the sun. No appointments today, no meetings. We can take this storm in as it comes, not see it as a barrier. We’ll get plowed today, I’m sure, so no worries there either. Let it snow.
Snow is so important here. Obviously it fuels the winter tourism economy, giving skiers destinations like Breckenridge, Aspen, Copper Mountain, Vail, Crested Butte. It transforms the mountains from gray eminences to white peaks that sometimes look like whipped cream on the horizon. But these are ancillary benefits.
There are two other effects that are critical to life both here in the Colorado Rockies and in the southwestern U.S. A good snow season reduces the threat of wildfire in the spring and summer until the monsoons come. That effects Kate and me and our neighbors directly. It feels much better going into summer having had plenty of moisture for the trees and the soil. A good snow season also recharges our aquifers, makes sure we’ll have water throughout the next year. This is an immediate, right here result of good snow.
But effecting even more people is the snow melt* carried by the Colorado River downstream. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming take an allocated and collective 16,400,000 acre feet per year. Problem is this amount, agreed to in a 1928 compact, is an inaccurate estimate of the actual annual flow of the Colorado. Based on tree ring data it’s somewhere between 13,200,000 acre feet and 14,300,000 acre feet a year. This is known by folks who deal with this complicated issue as “the gap.”
“Total population in the Colorado River Basin (CRB) increased from 4.56 to 9.44 million people from 1985 to 2010. Most of those people were in the lower CRB, with 86 percent of the total in 1985, and 90 percent of the total in 2010.”** The snowpack numbers, created by our annual snowfall, are critical not only here, because the Front Range and the Denver Metro rely on the Colorado River, but throughout the seven state CRB. These figures, almost invisible to the population of the humid east, are never far from the minds of government officials at the state, county, and municipal level here in the arid west, or the population as a whole.
The gap is a problem for obvious reasons. Drought years, like last year when the snowpack was well below normal, and the increasing population in the CRB both reinforce and multiply the effects of the gap. As the Water Defenders fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline repeatedly said, “Water is life.” These are not trivial matters, so seeing a healthy snowfall is a joy and a relief to all of us living out here.
Finally, here is the problem that bedevils all those effected by The Law of the River, a web of compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, contracts, and regulatory guidelines.* As this graph clearly shows irrigation is the largest claim on the CRB’s water by an order of magnitude. Add to that the allocation for livestock and aquaculture and 82% of the allocation goes to agriculture of one kind or another. We need food, those who grow our food need water. With public uses only 17% of the pie even the most draconian water policies in cities and areas like the Front Range will not move the needle much in total water use. Add to this the problem of the gap, droughts, and rapidly increasing populations, five of the fastest growing states in the nation are part of the CRB, then you can begin to imagine the tense negotiations required to maintain the status quo, let alone plan sensibly for the future.
So, as I said at the end of the first paragraph, let it snow. Please.
*data here from this wikipedia site.