Dust on snow has an effect on runoff in the #ColoradoRiver Basin

Dust streaming across Four Corners April 29, 2009 via MODIS
Dust streaming across Four Corners April 29, 2009 via MODIS

From New West (Allen Best):

Neither rare nor normal…dust storms have been significantly denting the flow of the Colorado River, scientists report in a paper published recently in a journal, the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences. They say the dust causes the snowpack to absorb more solar energy during the spring, hastening runoff and robbing the river of water of 5 percent of its flow before it reaches the Grand Canyon. They believe the dust is mostly caused by human activities in desert regions…

Brad Udall, managing director of the Western Water Assessment and a co-author of the study, points out that this volume of water, 750,000 acre-feet annually, is twice the water right owned by Las Vegas, about half of what gets drawn through the Central Arizona Project, and about twice what the city of Denver uses.

“It’s a large chunk of water,” he says in a video posted at in a video posted at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences website.

Udall goes on to say that this understanding presents opportunity. Pinched by rapid population growth and what looks to be rapidly rising temperatures, cities of the Southwest have already begun studying their options…

If causes of the desert dust can be abated, says Udall, more native water will be available to cities and farms of the Southwest. However, the lower-basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada have so far shown little interest in the dust-on-snow findings, says Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, an agency based in Glenwood Springs, Colo. It contributed $10,000 this year to the dust-on-snow research.

“I have my doubts that it will ever get much traction,” Kuhn adds. “My guess is that many will consider dust a problem without a real solution. What are the options, reducing recreation and development in the deserts?”

This growing understanding of how activities in desert country can affect high-mountain snowpacks was triggered by a casual observation one June day in the late 1990s. Tom Painter, then a graduate student, was hiking up a mountain peak near Aspen with his father. They paused that morning near a lingering patch of dirty-looking snow. Idly, the younger Painter scraped off the top layer of dirty snow, leaving a gleaming, white surface. Returning late in the afternoon, the Painters observed the darkened snow had shrunk significantly. The snow scraped clean that morning stood higher, like a mushroom, as it had melted far less.

Painter understood what had happened. White surfaces reflect more solar radiation than dark surfaces, a phenomenon called albedo. After all, snow on an asphalt driveway melts more rapidly than on a concrete one. What Painter didn’t know was the source of the dust and its larger effect in melting mountain snowpacks.

After getting his Ph.D., Painter teamed with Chris Landry, who had recently established the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton. Landry had grown up in Aspen and Whitefish, Mont., where he learned to ski. He had recently received a master’s degree in snow and avalanche studies at Montana State University. Settling in Silverton, an old mining town located at an elevation of 9,300 feet, Landry found an above-timberline valley called Senator Beck Basin suitable for ongoing alpine research. Although close to a paved road, it’s inaccessible to four-wheelers, unused by snowmobilers, and was never substantially tainted by mining.

But the snow is by no means pristine. Pits dug to the ground in May or June at elevations of 11,000 to 12,200 feet reveal a snowpack that in places looks like an angel-food cake layered with chocolate frosting. Each layer represents a different storm. As the snow melts, the dust remains. By late May during the last two years, the snowpack in the San Juan Mountains has looked like a beige carpet…

Frequency of dust storms varies. In eight years of record-keeping, there have been as few as three and as many as 12. They have come anywhere form October to June, although most often in spring. Depending upon origin, including Utah, California and even Mexico, the dust sprinkled on snow looks red, black or tan.

Humans cause much of this dust. Studying sediments from an above-timberline lake accumulated during the last 1,200 years, scientist Jason Neff found an enormous change beginning in the 1800s. Dust deposition increased 600 percent. Later, after the 1930s, dust levels fell back to 500 percent. This increase in dust coincides with American settlement of the desert southwest. Later, in the 1930s, Congress adopted restrictions on grazing of public lands – possibly explaining the small decrease since then.

Working in the desert country of southeast Utah, U.S. Geological Survey researcher Jayne Belnap documented how dust gets picked up and blown. Setting up portable wind tunnels to simulate storms, she found undisturbed land yielded little dust. Disturbed lands
were another matter.

Still, a nagging question from water-user groups remained. “They would say, ‘We understand the influence on timing and rates (of runoff), but how does this affect yields?’” says Landry. “I had to say, ‘We don’t know yet. We don’t have a good answer for you yet.”

For that answer, Painter and associates set out to model the findings from Senator Beck Basin more broadly across the upper Colorado River Basin. Nearly all the water in the river comes from the upper basin, which also includes portions of Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico…

Laurna Kaatz, climate scientist, describes the study as interesting, but says the effect of accumulating greenhouse gases on Denver’s water supply remains unclear.

“I don’t think we’re at a point we can say definitely that we know what will happen in the future and what we need to be prepared for in the future,” says Kaatz. “At Denver Water, we are doing our best to be prepared for the uncertainties that unfold.”

Kuhn admits he was surprised by the model that delivered the 5 percent estimate, which he believes could change with additional study. “The number is only as good as the model, but whether it’s 4 percent or 6 percent, that’s a lot of water.”

Driving frequently for the last 30 years between Glenwood Springs and Flagstaff, Ariz., where his parents live, Kuhn believes that livestock grazing no longer disturbs the soil significantly. Instead, he blames recreation, development and roads for breaking the microbial layers on desert soils, allowing dust to be picked up by winds.

The researchers are continuing their work, this time with a $1.6 million grant from NASA. They also seek to expand the dust-measuring network across the Colorado River Basin to other mountain research stations. Entirely new monitoring stations are needed in places such as Wyoming’s Wind River Range, a major source of Colorado River water, says Deems.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

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