FLOBECK: ‘Normal’ snowpack may be a phenomenon of the past

February 21, 2013

First some background. Water is simple, complex. Over two thousand years ago, Solomon said: “all streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full, to the place the streams come from, there they return again.” Most of our readers would be astounded to learn that their cool glass of water, so appreciated on a humid August day, comes originally, not from a mountain stream in Leadville or Aspen, but from the surface of the giant Pacific, where on a sultry day a drop of salt water was vaporized and rose into a soft white cloud drifting east towards our lofty, rugged Rockies; where it collided with a blast of ice cold air and dropped gently on a high white valley. In springtime, the now fierce sun blasted this flake, and steered this molecule of water down the hills to quench our thirsty throats in Colorado Springs. Scientists adore big words, so they call this process, evapotranspiration.

We’re in a severe drought now and the news tells us that the snowpack is far below normal. A funny story helps me remember what it means to be “normal.” A real estate friend in Pittsburgh had a huge factory listed for sale, and asked me to accompany him to show it, and explain some of the engineering details about the strength of the floors, and the sprinkler system. After a masterful and thorough tour he proclaimed to the prospective buyer; “and it’s got a new roof!” The buyer alertly asked; “so, when was it new?” My friend sheepishly replied: “about five years ago.”

This illustrates how extremely important it is to date and justify any claims of new or normal, especially when we discuss our precious snowpack.

“Normal” in snowpack history can be many years ago, and it’s not the discrete date that counts; it’s what that entails; as well as what’s happened since that normal date. The 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s brought millions more people to Colorado, owning millions more cars; the temperatures are higher each summer; and hundreds of coal-fired energy plants have been built from California to Colorado, and even with best intentions and the latest high-tech filters; they all contribute to a dirtier snow. Dirtier snow melts earlier. Next snowstorm, take two identical plastic paint buckets, and, pack one with just snow; but in the other put a dozen black marbles in on top of every three inches of snow. Put them out in the Colorado sunshine that usually follows a snow. Check your watch, and you will notice that the bucket with the marbles melts in much less time than the snow-only bucket. This is the way it works with our snowpack, too.

Our farmers use 80 percent of our water to irrigate crops, and they can only irrigate after preparing their fields, planting, and fertilizing. If the precious and prayed for snow melt continues to occur earlier in the year; the bulk of our water will run downstream to Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California before the farmers have a chance to use it. Then, later in the year, when it’s almost too late, they will exercise their senior water rights to irrigate. Our rivers will be significantly drained, forcing many municipalities to start rationing.

This is a warning that “normal,” may be worse that the experts expect. In future columns, we will explore both practical and possible alternatives to alleviate part of this looming water crisis.

Jack Flobeck is the Founder of Aqua Prima Center Inc., a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at colojackf@msn.com.

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