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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Meager snowpack hints at grim future for winters in Western U.S.

Kelly Ormesher (left) and John Barr along the shores of the Boulder Reservoir. The birders were waiting for a glimpse of a rare bird called the snow bunting.
Robyn Vincent
Mountain West News Bureau
Kelly Ormesher (left) and John Barr along the shores of the Boulder Reservoir. The avid birders have noticed how climate change is affecting what kinds of birds they see and when.

On a cool December day at Colorado’s Boulder Reservoir, glints of sunlight fracture through the clouds and sparkle across the reservoir, which provides the city with 20% of its drinking water.

This is where Boulder stores its Colorado River water, explains Brad Udall, a climate scientist with Colorado State University. He is sitting on a dock overlooking the turquoise water as birds bob on the surface.

“Most people don't appreciate that on the Front Range of Colorado, half of the water we use here is actually imported into this basin, the South Platte Basin, from the Colorado River by a series of tunnels under the Continental Divide,” Udall says.

And with 80% of Coloradans living along the Front Range, that means a lot of people here depend on water from the Colorado River, not to mention the millions more in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona and California.

But climate change continues to dramatically alter river flows, deepening uncertainty about the future of water in the West. Since the year 2000, Colorado River flows are down about 20% relative to the 20th century average.

River flows hinge on something the Mountain West desperately needs: snow. The West’s snowpack that feeds the Colorado River and fuels winter recreation usually begins accumulating in late October and stretches into May. But in recent decades, that window has diminished. This year many Western ski resorts have had to delay their openings due to a lack of snow.

In Colorado, Denver recently set a record for the latest snowfall ever. The Mile High City finally broke its 232-day snowless streak on December 10, when just three tenths of an inch fell at Denver International Airport.

Across the West, Udall describes the snowpack as “horrendous,” including in the Pacific Northwest, which has seen significant precipitation. But warm temperatures have prevented that precipitation from turning into snow and staying in the mountains where it can help build a strong snowpack.

All of this weighs heavy on the mind of Kelly Ormesher. The retired elementary school teacher is stationed along the sandy shore of the Boulder Reservoir holding a camera with a long-focus lens. She has her eye out for snow buntings. The rare birds have been making an appearance at the reservoir over the last couple days.

Ormesher is an avid birder and she notices how a warming climate is affecting wildlife.

“We've been seeing I feel like more birds that are coming through later this year,” she says. “We were just talking about a group of shorebirds that were hanging out yesterday, which are usually long gone.”

She is also concerned about the broader implications that recent dry, warm weather will have on the already parched West, where much of the region faces a historic drought.

“All of our water comes from what we get in the mountains, and there isn't any water coming in from anywhere else, and that water is used by millions of people downriver from us,” Ormesher says. “So it is very much a concern.”

Her worries echo those of climate scientist Ben Hatchett with the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nevada.

“We are careening towards this future where our mountains no longer have the snowpack that we have come to expect them to have to meet our downstream water needs,” he tells the Mountain West News Bureau.

Hatchett just co-authored a study that predicts the Western U.S. will consistently see low-to-no snow winters within the next 35 to 60 years if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.

“The higher elevations will be a little bit better off for a little bit longer,” Hatchett says. “But if things continue to warm, even them will eventually be snow-free later in the century or early next century.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor’s map remains bright red. But on December 9, it noted a positive development: “heavy mountain snowfall expected in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, Great Basin, and the Rockies.”

Indeed, recent snow in the Western mountains, the lifeblood of the region, is a welcome arrival for everyone from skiers and snowboarders to the many business owners in mountain towns whose livelihoods hinge on the vitality of winter.

But despite the soul-quenching snowfall, huge precipitation deficits persist. In California, the state’s largest reservoirs are still at critically low levels, the U.S. Drought Monitor notes.

In New Mexico, snowpack levels range from 12% to 77% of normal while some severe and exceptional drought conditions in Montana, Oregon, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming improved, the monitor said.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, “November 2021 was the second warmest on record for the West and Southwest climate regions. Moreover, California and Wyoming both recorded their warmest average minimum temperatures on record for November while Nevada, Utah, and Colorado observed their second warmest on record.”

Udall, for his part, says conversations about the future of snowfall and drought in the West should dial back to one thing.

“Fundamentally, we need a whole new set of rules and regulations for everyone to play by — including industry — where you can't dump pollutants, be they conventional or carbon pollutants, into a global commons that then hurts everybody,” he says.

And the time to implement those new rules, Udall adds, is running out.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I wear many hats in KUNC's newsroom as an executive producer, editor and reporter. My work focuses on inequality, the systems of power that entrench it, and the people who are disproportionately affected. I help reporters in my newsroom to also uncover these angles and elevate unheard voices in the process.