Water: A Zero Sum Game

Water: A Zero Sum Game


it’s early morning on Niwot Ridge at the
University of Colorado Mountain Research Station snow hydrologist Mark Williams
starts another day at 9,300 feet coaxing a reluctant snowcat into action and one
of the big projects here is the Niwot Ridge long-term ecological research
project Niwot LTER when we get right to about 10,000 feet we’re gonna hit
snow line Williams is an explorer his discoveries are trapped in snow along
with the critical questions about how nature stores water in the process by
which it’s released throughout the arid West let’s say you gonna take a shower
okay where does that water come from most of it comes from the mountains at
11,000 feet in the Colorado front range we have somewhere around four to five
times the amount of annual preset as we do in Denver but exploring the source of
our clean water can be hard work when the snow-cat is no longer just reluctant
but stops entirely Williams and his fellow researchers have to strap on skis
to go further up the mountain and get hip deep in the snowpack here winter
temperatures hit minus 30 centigrade deep below them the path of the snowmelt
is percolating through an intricate surface and subsurface system how deep
it is gonna be Jeff snow accumulates during the winter it’s kind of like a
bank where you got this fruiting nice capital account one question that we’re
trying to address with this research is how much water is stored as snow in
these high elevation areas and the reason we want to know that is so that
we can answer this question how much of the water that’s used at low elevation
ie by the city of Denver come from the office our best estimate
is that somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of all usable water in the
western US comes from snow about running but Williams and his team of researchers
look at far more than water quantity their work touches on climate change
groundwater storage snow hydrology and pollution in fact the Colorado Rockies
hold the entire code to the puzzle of water both its origins and our future
ability to supply it in the quantities we want and the quality we need
researchers dig snow pits to make vital measurements of the atmosphere including
air temperature and meteorological conditions and they build an array of
snow limiters underground boxes that isolate snow melt from soil water runoff
so now we’re under the snowpack and there’s all these snow melt limiters
here each of these pipes is connected to a collection basis that’s basin that’s
out in the snow that just is going to measure the water from snowmelt set up
so that we’re not measuring soil water or anything else it’s just snow melt
water researchers have mapped the snow melt and in truth it continually
recharges groundwater storage pockets pushing older water out into streams
while banking newer snowmelt for later years and you can think of the
groundwater is a big sponge and it has some storage and then when you fill out
that sponge up water leaves and entered streams and away we go use that water
this is a very mix I I think it’s the only one in the world where we have an
underground under snow laboratory we do a lot of other things here as well one
of those is we measure trace gas fluxes through the snowpack and at times we
measure n2o co2 methane climate change is the big question out here as
temperatures warm what are the impacts on snow and water storage
we switch it from snow to rain because it’s warmer we’re going to end up with
less usable water because we’re going to lose that banking effect that we get
from the seasonal snow pack and we’re going to lose more water to divert
transpiration so it’s it’s a positive feedback that gets out of whack really
fast air temperatures are going to increase because we’re simply putting
more energy in the atmosphere one of the things that is going to happen is the
dry places are probably going to get drier because they’re going to heat up
faster and that’s a prediction for the southwestern United States and that
appears to be happening water is a zero-sum game the good thing is can’t
lose water we can’t destroy the bad news is we can’t make more you

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