The Sierra Nevada mountains. In the winter, cold, moist air off the Pacific Ocean is pushed up over them. The air loses the ability to hold the water vapor as it rises up and snow precipitates out. The snow piles up and waits for Spring and as the Summer approaches the warm air melts the snowpack and water flows. That is the source of the water supply for California and western Nevada. Sometimes.
Snowpack: The Alpha and Omega of Western Water Management
Sometimes the snow doesn’t fall. The creeks and rivers dwindle. The water level in the lakes and reservoirs drop and a drought begins. It is a cycle that has repeated many times in the western United States, but not when so many people have been dependent on the annual water flow.
In this part of the country, it is all about the snowpack. If the Sierra Nevada mountains have a good snowpack, there is water. If not, well… This is the model of water management in California and western Nevada and in the last few decades have proven that it is not a good one. Drought is not an exception in the West, but the rule. As the population grows, the Sierra Nevada snowpack becomes the enemy.
Global Warming: Raining on the Snowpack Parade
There is growing problem with the reliance on the snowpack. Global warming. The impact of the Earth’s atmosphere retaining more of the Sun’s energy may be that snowfall may become rare, or non-existent in temperate climates.
Beyond the issue of drought is the issue of rain versus snow. The West has reservoirs and lakes, but that storage is not enough if the precipitation falls as rain, not snow. Rain also is not as efficient as snow in replenishing the deep aquifers that have been used to supplement the surface water.
Up the Creek With No Water
Drought is the new normal in regions in the West dependent on snowpack. The current response has been to push for water restrictions. This is not a flawed approach as the water users have become accustomed to the mindless waste of fresh water; however, reducing the use of water is not going to solve the problem.
Global warming is causing the precipitation to fall as rain, not snow. If water management in California and Nevada can’t learn to transition off the snowpack model it won’t matter how much water is saved. You can’t reduce the use of water when there is no water to save.
SIDE NOTE: Creator of the Snowpack Survey
On the University of Nevada (UoNV) campus in Reno, Nevada there is a building named the ‘Church Fine Arts Building.’ Some even make the mistake of calling it the Church ‘of’ Fine Arts, which might be appropriate for some who dedicates his or her life to the Arts.
However, the building is named after the UoNV professor, Dr. James E. Church, who died in 1959. He taught Latin, German, and Fine Arts at the university from 1892 to 1939. He was not employed as a scientist at the UoNV; however, Dr. Church invented the snowpack survey that is still used today to determine the water content of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range.
It is said that he and his wife’s ashes are in the cornerstone of the Church Fine Arts Building.
[COUNT TO 500: 499th Article in PAULx]