Scientists launch effort to collect water data in US West — The Associated Press

Gothic mountain shrouded in clouds behind several cabins. Site of the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory. Gothic, Colorado, USA. By Charlie DeTar – Own workby uploader, CC BY-SA 3.0,

From The Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca):

The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday announced a new kind of climate observatory near the headwaters of the Colorado River that will help scientists better predict rain and snowfall in the U.S. West and determine how much of it will flow through the region.

The multimillion-dollar effort led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory launches next week. The team has set up radar systems, balloons, cameras and other equipment in an area of Colorado where much of the water in the river originates as snow. More than 40 million people depend on the Colorado River.

Alejandro Flores, an associate professor of hydrology at Boise State University, said the weather in mountainous areas is notoriously difficult to model and the observatory will be a “game changer.”

“We have to think about the land and the atmosphere as a linked system that interact with each other,” he said in a call with reporters. “Up until now, there have been a lack of observations that help us understand this critical interface.”


Scientists will use the observatory to gather data on precipitation, wind, clouds, tiny particles, humidity, soil moisture and other things. Along with a better understanding of the hydrology, they hope to learn more about how wildfires, forest management, drought and tree-killing bugs, for example, play a part in water availability.

A big issue in predicting water supply in the West centers on soil moisture and content, said Ken Williams, the lead on-site researcher and Berkeley Lab scientist. The monsoon season largely was a dud across the Southwest for the past two years, which means more melting snow soaks into the ground before reaching streams and rivers when it does rain, he said…

The new climate observatory, called the Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory, brings together federal scientists, university researchers and others to build on a previous effort to study part of the upper Gunnison River basin in Colorado that shares characteristics with the Rocky Mountains.

For the Rio Grande basin, the data could help water managers as they juggle longstanding water sharing agreements among Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, Williams said. It also could help improve weather forecasting and experiments to modify the weather, such as cloud seeding to produce more precipitation.

The data will be available to other researchers and provide a benchmark for any collection beyond the two-year project, scientists said.

The Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory (SAIL) near Crested Butte, Colo., will start collecting a vast range of weather data on September 1, when scientists flip the switch on a slew of machinery that has been amassed in the Upper Colorado River Basin. (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Zak Podmore):

Water managers in the Colorado River basin knew that dry soil conditions and below-average snowpack last winter would lead to reduced runoff into streams, rivers and reservoirs this summer. But predicting just how much water would make its way into the Colorado watershed proved difficult.

In April, the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees a vast network of water infrastructure in the United States, shared data with the National Park Service that projected a range of water levels in Lake Powell throughout 2021. The models showed the reservoir would likely remain above 3,554 feet in elevation — a level below which many of the boat ramps in Glen Canyon National Recreation area would become unusable — until as late as October.

But those projections turned out to be overly optimistic and were repeatedly revised as the spring snowmelt failed to recharge reservoirs in the basin. Lake Powell fell below 3,554 feet in July, and it has continued to decline, despite unprecedented emergency releases from other reservoirs upstream.

Longer-term models forecasting levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell proved to be even further off-base, a prediction miss that has consequences for the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for water…

Improving the accuracy of weather and streamflow forecasts is one goal of a new project that U.S. Department of Energy scientists led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are starting next month. The team is installing a field laboratory in the mountains of Colorado near Crested Butte that will collect a vast array of data to better understand the water cycle in high elevation environments.

Mountain regions, where most of the water in Western rivers originates, are changing rapidly in the face of climate change, explained Alejandro Flores, a hydrologist at Boise State University who is involved with the project.

“Mountain environments,” he said in a press call with reporters Tuesday, “present a particularly difficult environment in which to model the weather and in particular the precipitation and other facets that control how snowpack accumulates over the course of the season.”

The field laboratory will operate for two years and will measure everything from groundwater conditions to wind, clouds, aerosols, temperature, humidity and ozone. It will also bring together scientists specializing in various fields — geologists, hydrologists, microbiologists, plant and vegetation researchers — as well as various universities and federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation…

The range of data being collected by the project will allow researchers to study weather patterns in great detail, said Jessie Creamean, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, and findings from the project will likely be applicable to other mountain watersheds.

The project leaders hope the findings from the project can be used to more accurately model runoff into reservoirs but also to improve weather forecasts used by skiers and other recreationists.