The mystery of missing water from mountain sources
By Corydon Ireland, Staff Writer, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
A University of Washington project, aided by the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility, leverages a rare confluence of collaborators to study snow sublimation.
On the westward side of the Rocky Mountains, the Upper Colorado River Basin has historically been a wintertime storage bin for snowpack, the compressed remnants of months of falling snow. As the snowpack melts, the resulting runoff joins water sources from other mountain watersheds and fills the coffers of streams and rivers fanning out into the Western United States.
About 40 million Americans in seven states depend on that water for drinking, hydropower, and agriculture.
But there’s a catch.
Not all the snowpack melts to become usable water. In the spring of 2021, for example, snowpack in this mountain reservoir of the Colorado River measured at about 80% of historical averages. But the water that flowed out of the basin was only about 25% of what was expected.