Here’s a guest column from the Eagle River Watershed Council (James Dilzell) that’s running in The Vail Daily:
In the final week of February, Eagle River Watershed Council had a snowshoe hike planned on a new trail at Brush Creek Valley Ranch & Open Space to teach residents about snow science basics. It’s a trail I came to love this fall and winter – a quick jaunt from town, plenty of parking and not busy with other visitors. It winds along a small creek, through fields of junipers and swaths of scrub oak. In the four times I had visited there since November, the creek had always been at least partially frozen, and the entire trail covered in a gorgeous layer of snow.
The day of our event, I arrived first and quickly noticed that the layer of snow had disappeared and exposed a bare-soil parking area. I took a few steps up the trail for a better view, hoping the drainage would have been protected from our intense sun and still covered in at least a small bit of snow for our snow science hike. Alas, the snowshoes filling up my Subaru wagon were entirely unnecessary, and our group simply walked up the exposed trail.
I may be repeating some things we already know as residents of the arid West, but our lack of consistent snowpack this year is truly concerning. Yes, February brought some good storms, and our water year precipitation to date is hovering around 84% — but what we aren’t getting are those daily refills that are critical to sustain healthy snowpack through the entire winter. When graphed, our snowpack data looks like a sin-wave, melting out before another refill, rather than a semi-consistent uptick.
The effect of this drought goes beyond a sub-par ski season. Stephen Jaouen and Maggie Guinta – both Natural Resources Conservation Service staff who joined our event – shared with the group that 80% of Colorado’s water comes from snowpack. This once-reliable reservoir of frozen matter melts out and sends water down the Eagle, into the Colorado River and on to 40 million users in seven states and Mexico. Reduced snowpack means reduced flows for recreation, drinking water and agriculture all the way down the line.
Using data points like snow density and depth, along with snow-water equivalent calculations, which are gathered from automated Snow Telemetry sites and boots-on-the-ground snow surveys, the NRCS is able to share monthly forecasts for basins throughout the West. For us in Eagle County, the February forecast was bleak. Even if we were to see the best snowfall in 30 years over the next two months, the Eagle River still won’t hit average flows from April through July.
There are other issues plaguing this water year, too. You might remember this fall, when the Eagle River flows were nearing 60% of average and almost our entire county was in D4 drought – the most severe. Our monsoon season was non-existent, and so we started off the snowy season with a deficit of soil moisture content.
Reduced snowpack means reduced flows, and Mother Nature will snag some of that water to recharge groundwater and soil moisture before releasing water into our rivers and streams. To use a financial metaphor: some of our paycheck will be gone before it even hits the bank.
While this seems like all doom and gloom, I’m not writing this article to be an alarmist. In fact, we’ve all heard these messages and warnings for years. Positive changes are being made, like new legislation allowing for the temporary donation of water rights and new water efficiency programs popping up around the state and in our community.
I am instead writing this article to inspire our community to take action and take water efficiency seriously.
We are not able to control the amount of water available in the mountains surrounding our towns, but we can choose to use our water wisely. In years like this, it’s up to all of us to prioritize those in-stream flows that fuel our recreation economy, keep fish and wildlife happy and allow us to thrive in this incredible place we call home.
As we begin the transition to spring and summer, consider creating an at-home water efficiency plan with your family or roommates. Take your car to a commercial car wash instead of washing it at home. Or perhaps change up your landscaping by removing water-thirsty turf grass, replacing it with native and drought-tolerant tall grasses, flowers and shrubs.
It’s going to take a village to collectively reduce our water use, and it’s about time we take better care of our river so that it can take better care of us. For more resources and actions to take, visit erwc.org/drought.
James Dilzell is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit http://erwc.org.