Snowpack and ecosystem dynamics

The Colorado River, Blue River, Fraser River, and surrounding areas with stream networks, SNOTEL sites, and trans-basin diversion also shown.

Sustainability of Western Water, Water Storage as Snow, and Trans-Basin Diversions

The impacts of climate change on water sustainability in the Western U.S. is inherently linked to changes in mountain snow accumulation and snowmelt timing which sustains agricultural and municipal water demands for 60 million people in the region. A potential major implication of these changes is associated with the viability of current water infrastructure; in particular, the diversion of water from one river basin to another (aka trans-basin diversions). In Colorado and across the West, trans-basin diversions move water to satisfy the demands of growing population centers, agricultural industries, and other uses. The efficiency of the storage and delivery system is greatly enhanced by the natural storage of winter precipitation in the mountain snowpack and the relatively slow delivery of snowmelt water into the system. 



Percent change in snowfall to rainfall. Trends in observerd precipitation type over the period 1950 - 2000. Values indicate the percentage shift from snowfall to rainfall (yellow - red).

Shift from Snow to Rain With Climate Change

Snowpack measurements over the past 50+ years suggest a broad scale reduction in snowpack water storage associated with regional warming - a trend that is partly due to a shift from snowfall to rainfall. Projected onto this scenario of reduced snowpack, the demand for water in the region is escalating as agricultural, industrial, and societal pressure on the current system grows. Furthermore, land cover changes associated with population growth along the wildland- urban interface, fire suppression, and mountain pine bark beetle outbreaks have altered the manner in which water moves across the landscape.

Identify Tipping Points to Better Understand Climate, Snow, and Ecosystems for Improved Estimates of Future Water Supply and Demand

To address these colliding resource pressures, this project will develop cross-cutting scientific understanding of climate-snow-ecosystem feedbacks to identify tipping points with regard to how these perturbations impact the operational procedures and legal agreements associated with water allocations and trans-basin diversions. In this regard, the nexus of the proposed activity is a synthesis of snowpack information to accurately estimate snowpack water storage. These estimates will then be used within climate, ecosystem, and water operations models; leveraging remotely sensed snow and vegetation information and distributed snowpack models. This project synthesizes disciplinary expertise from snow physics, hydroclimatology, water resources engineering and socio-economics to address current and pressing needs for improved estimates of future water supply and demand in the headwaters region of Colorado.

Outreach and Education to the Water Community

The project also seeks to capitalize on long-standing relationships between team members and various water and land use stakeholder communities. In doing so, it will contribute in four main areas:

  1. leveraging existing observational infrastructure 
  2. advancing the development and evaluation of science-based, publicly-available snowpack, regional climate and integrated water resources models
  3. providing unique educational opportunities for graduate students and a post-doctoral scholar to work collaboratively at a major Earth science research university and a national laboratory
  4. providing water and land resource decision makers with state of the science projections of how water supply and demand will change in the future.


National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Project Description


Water Sustainability and Climate Research Program (WSC)

Contact Information

(Phone) (303)-492-6151
(Fax) (303)-492-6388
Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research
University of Colorado
Campus Box 450
Boulder, CO 80309-0450 USA