More than 150 years ago, the U.S. government and the tribe signed treaties that promised the tribe a “permanent home” — a promise the Navajo Nation says includes a sufficient supply of water. The tribe says the government broke its promise to ensure the tribe has enough water and that people are suffering as a result. The federal government disputes that claim. And states, such as Arizona, California and Nevada, argue that more water for the Navajo Nation would cut into already scarce supplies for cities, agriculture and business growth…
The high court will hold oral arguments Monday in a case with critical implications for how water from the drought-stricken Colorado River is shared and the extent of the U.S. government’s obligations to Native American tribes. A win for the Navajo Nation won’t directly result in more water for the roughly 175,000 people who live on the largest reservation in the U.S. But it’s a piece of what has been a multi-faceted approach over decades to obtain a basic need…
DigDeep, which filed a legal brief in support of the Navajo Nation’s case, has worked to help tribal members gain access to water as larger water-rights claims are pressed…
Extending water lines to the sparsely populated sections of the 27,000 square-mile (69,000 square-kilometer) reservation that spans three states is difficult and costly. But tribal officials say additional water supplies would help ease the burden and create equity.
“You drive to Flagstaff, you drive to Albuquerque, you drive to Phoenix, there is water everywhere, everything is green, everything is watered up,” said Rex Kontz, deputy general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. “You don’t see that on Navajo.”
For decades, the Navajo Nation has fought for access to surface water, including the Colorado River and its tributaries, that it can pipe to more remote locations for homes, businesses and government offices.
Another round of powerful atmospheric rivers is hitting California, following storms in January and February 2023 that dumped record amounts of snow. This time, the storms are warmer, and they are triggering flood warnings as they bring rain higher into the mountains – on top of the snowpack.
Professor Keith Musselman, who studies water and climate change at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, explained the complex risks rain on snow creates and how they might change in a warming climate.
What happens when rain falls on snowpack?
For much of the United States, storms with heavy rainfall can coincide with seasonal snow cover. When that happens, the resulting runoff of water can be much greater than what is produced from rain or snowmelt alone. The combination has resulted in some of the nation’s most destructive and costly floods, including the 1996 Midwest floods and the 2017 flood that damaged California’s Oroville Dam.
Contrary to common belief, rainfall itself has limited energy to melt snow. Rather, it is the warm temperatures, strong winds and high humidity, which can transport substantial energy in the form of latent and sensible heat, that predominantly drive snowmelt during rain-on-snow events.
Snowpack has air spaces that water can move through. As the rain falls, the water can travel relatively rapidly through the snowpack’s layers to reach the underlying soil. How streams respond to that runoff depends on how much water is already flowing and how saturated the soil is.
When the soil isn’t yet saturated, it can dampen or delay a flood response by soaking up rain and melting snow. But when the ground is saturated, snowmelt combined with rain can lead to fast and devastating flooding.
One of the challenges for dealing with these rain-on-snow events is that the flood risk is hard to forecast.
To predict whether a flood will occur requires knowledge of weather and hydrological conditions. It requires knowing the soil moisture and snowpack conditions before the storm, the elevation at which rain transitions to snow, the rainfall rate, the wind speed, air temperature and humidity, and estimates of how those factors contribute to snowmelt. Additionally, each factor varies in time during a storm and varies in complex ways, especially across a mountainous landscape.
This is why rain-on-snow floods are characterized as compound extreme events. Despite the extensive damage they can cause, it may be surprising how little is known about how they vary in time, spatial extent and intensity.
California is getting another atmospheric river, with more rain on snow expected. How does the rain-on-snow effect differ by elevation in the mountains there?
In the California mountains right now, it’s the middle elevations that people need to pay attention to.
The lower elevations have primarily seen rainfall rather than snow, so there is less snowpack to melt. And in the highest elevations, colder temperatures promote the continued accumulation of deep snowpack and rainfall is less likely.
In the middle transition zone – where either substantial rainfall or snowfall can occur – rain-on-snow events are most common, causing both melting and risk of roof collapses.
If all storms were created equal, there would be well-defined rain zones and snow zones, and the rain-on-snow flood risk would be low. But that isn’t what happens. Instead, not only does the snow zone elevation vary during an event, but it also varies substantially from one storm to the next.
The most destructive rain-on-snow events occur when rivers are already running high and soils are saturated, which can occur in response to a series of warm atmospheric rivers interacting with a deep snowpack – like California’s mountains have right now. The order in which these storms occur – or the storm sequencing – is especially important for assessing flood risk because these events are, in part, caused by rapid shifts between cold periods of snow accumulation followed by warm rainfall events.
What does research show about the future risk of rain-on-snow events in a warming climate?
Even less is known about how rain-on-snow flood risk may respond as the planet warms.
In a warmer climate, there will be less risk of rain falling on snow in the lower elevations as the snowpack declines, particularly in warmer regions such as the Pacific Northwest.
Flood control and reservoir management systems in these mountainous regions will have to consider these future changes in rain-on-snow events – in addition to changes in rainfall intensity and storm sequencing – to fully understand and prepare for the local flood risk as the planet warms.
So, will projected increases in precipitation extremes and winter rainfall increase rain-on-snow occurrence and the associated flood risk? Or will less snow cover and larger soil moisture deficits reduce rain-on-snow flood risk in a warmer climate?
In a future climate, the response of rain-on-snow flood risk is expected to change in complex and often contradictory ways. The projected changes are likely to vary by region, season, climate model, emissions scenario and future time horizon. It’s a costly risk that requires more research.
An important tool for the management of water in Colorado has received a funding boost from Northern Water.
On Feb. 9, the Northern Water Board authorized spending $150,000 on the Airborne Snow Observatories program for flights over the watersheds that feed the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Statewide, flights are planned across 11 river basins.
The program involves the use of a specialized airplane that flies over high-altitude watersheds and uses radar to measure the depth and density of snow across wide areas. The data acquired during flights in April and May will help water managers predict runoff and streamflow through the next few months.
This effort improves on the single-point snow observations that are part of the SNOTEL network and other data points that can have a larger amount of uncertainty based on localized conditions.
Agency partners for the work in the C-BT Project watersheds include the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, Denver Water, Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Other agencies are also looking to create a sustainable statewide program in future years.