Mild Winter Could Hurt Western States Water Supply

fromKUNC

Across much of Colorado, Utah, Montana and northern California, the snowpack is at less than half the average. There are concerns the skimpy snowpack won't fill the reservoirs and rivers. Millions of people depend on melting snow for their drinking water and farms.

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From Colorado to California, the snowpack is the lowest it's been in decades. It's been a mild winter, which is bad for powder skiers and snow-dependent businesses. But that's not the big deal. Kirk Siegler, of member station KUNC, reports the weather is also a concern for millions of people who depend on melting snow for drinking water and farms.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Mage Skordahl shields her eyes from the unforgiving, high-altitude sun as she snowshoes into a SNOTEL monitoring station. It's on Berthoud Pass at 11,000 feet, along the Continental Divide.

MAGE SKORDAHL: This site gets used for basin averages for the upper Colorado...

SIEGLER: Hydrologists have been visiting this site, taking snow-depth samples, for 60 years. Skordahl, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, uses a hollow, metal tube and drops it into the snow at precise locations.

SKORDAHL: Yeah, eight inches of water.

SIEGLER: Gauging the depth and water content here is important because much of this snow will melt and flow into the Colorado River, eventually winding its way to taps from Denver to Los Angeles. Think of it like a virtual storage reservoir.

SKORDAHL: In the Western states, about 75 percent of our water supply comes from the snowpack. That's a lot.

SIEGLER: So when the snowpack here at the headwaters of an arid region comes in at just over half of normal, time to take notice.

SKORDAHL: Can we recover from this? Yeah, you know, we still have a lot of season left. But, you know, it's not a good start.

DANA STRONGIN: Well the big thing that I've heard our engineers say is if we have to have a dry year, which we're never excited about, this is a great year to have it.

SIEGLER: Seventy miles east, up and over the Continental Divide, is Dana Strongin's office at Northern Water. Her agency pumps melted snow through a maze of pipes and reservoirs that feed thirsty cities and farms in northeastern Colorado. Strongin says she's not worried yet because last winter was so snowy.

STRONGIN: But if this year lags and next year lags, yeah, we can lose levels in our reservoirs and get a little concerned. A good portion of the 2000s was pretty rough on our storage.

SIEGLER: So it's not a crisis yet if you're in the water business. But recreation?

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SKIING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Whee!

SIEGLER: I'm standing here at the base of the Winter Park Ski Resort, watching a few snowboarders and skiers slide into the lift. And like many Western ski resorts, Winter Park has been left pretty high and dry so far this year. And resort spokeswoman Mistalynn Lee says they haven't actually been making snow here since December.

MISTALYNN LEE: We're in the industry of Mother Nature.

SIEGLER: Barely a third of the mountain here is open. Nearby Vail has attributed a 15 percent drop in skier visits to the dismal snow. The situation is worse in Lake Tahoe. Just about the only resorts doing well are Taos, New Mexico, and Whistler, British Columbia. The jet stream has sent the big storms to the far north and south. But here in Winter Park, Mistalynn Lee hasn't given up on winter.

LEE: This is very early, still, in the season. But we have four months left of our season and our busiest month is – snowiest month is in March.

SIEGLER: The ski industry is good at sounding optimistic in dry winters like this since in Colorado alone, skiing generates about $3 billion a year.

HELAYN STORCH: Yeah, we do OK. So we have avalanche beacons with us, shovels...

SIEGLER: Back on Berthoud Pass, a popular jumping off point for backcountry skiers, Helayn Storch and Rob Thorsheim are unloading their gear from the back of their Subaru.

ROB THORSHEIM: Normally you'd have 3-, 4-foot snow banks all around here. And we've got 2-foot snow banks.

STORCH: Yeah, last year in January, you couldn't even read that sign. It was covered.

SIEGLER: The two are a little more candid than the officials when it comes to the snowfall so far this year. They say it's been depressing.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.

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