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Report suggests dwindling snowpack should spark new water management strategy

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Posted at 8:42 AM, Dec 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-20 10:42:18-05

MISSOULA  — Researchers hope their work will prompt communities and public agencies to begin making plans now to avoid the coming water crisis with the Northern Rockies and the West facing a "no or low snow" future.

The published report from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab researchers suggests "no to low snow" winters coming in the next 35-to-60 years, based on data showing snowpack loss since 1950, and future projections.

The researchers say that will change everything from mountain ecology to the water available hundreds of miles downstream… with different "tipping points" for each impact.

water demand

"And that's where some of these model projections are really important and useful for trying to understand what that future looks like" explained Dr. Erica Sirrila-Woodburn. "Because we don't, you know, we don't have a crystal ball, and I think using the models is sort of one of our best approaches to trying to better quantify what that future might look like."

The report doesn't look at the economic impacts here in the Northern Rockies and other ranges, but the change upsetting a climate system that's served the West since it was settled.

It almost sounds like this is sort of tipping that whole Western assumption on it's on its head. Is that a fair assessment? MTN News asked during a recent interview.

"Yeah, that's a really good point. I mean, if you think about it, the infrastructure in the West was built maybe over 50 years ago under the assumption of a different climate that's just not here anymore," said Alan Rhoades, the Hydroclimate Research Scientist on the project.

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"I think the term in the academic community is called climate stationarity. And it's this assumption that the infrastructure was built and is still managed to codes that assume a healthy spring snowmelt falls each year and also release strategies associated with that snowmelt pulse."

Additionally, Sirrila-Woodburn says with even a slight warming the researchers see a greater frequency of the flooding as we've seen in California, and British Columbia this fall.

"So as that precipitation phase shift occurs and we get more rain instead of snow, we lose our ability to store this really massive amount of water in the mountains throughout the winter, "Sirrila-Woodburn explained. "The issue of, you know, a lack of water storage really becomes another kind of compounding factor in all of this."

One of the suggestions is to have humans do what Mother Nature is will no longer be able to do, performing the steps to recharge groundwater.

water storage

"One is managed recharge, where we're sort of diverting surface water and artificially having it infiltrate into groundwater aquifers," Sirrila-Woodburn noted.

"If you can forecast seven days out or five days out, a big atmospheric river event for example, and your reservoir levels are high enough that you can release some of that water, convey it to a floodplain or maybe an agricultural field, percolate that water into the aquifer," Rhoades pointed out.

"You essentially store that water, and you don't lose that water that you're released from the reservoir," Rhoades continued. "That might be needed later in the summer, for example, for agricultural needs or recreation, or you know, you can do down the line."

snowpack

Siirla-Woodburn, Rhoades, and their colleagues note even bolder ideas, such as underground reservoirs, which could take decades to develop. But they do have hope, judging by the reception the study is already getting, saying their whole objective is to spur conversation.

Sirrila-Woodburn says it's been encouraging to see the response and attention the report is generating.

"At Berkeley Lab, we're really trying to, you know, push the envelope in terms of filling some of these knowledge gaps and I think, encourage some of these partnerships across disciplines and across stakeholder and scientific engagement."

More on the report from Berkeley Lab.