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Snowpack and ecosystem dynamics

Sustainability of inter-basin water transfers under a changing climate


Morgan Zeliff digs a snowpit as Jennifer Morse maintains a flux tower on Niwot Ridge, Colorado, Jan 2011. Photo by Danielle Perrot

Human and Ecological Water Values Are Time Sensitive

The value of water for a variety of human uses depends on how well the timing of availability matches the timing of potential demands. Ecological water values are similarly time-sensitive as forest growth and net ecosystem exchange of Carbon is linked to spring warming and snowmelt water availability. While ecosystems are well-tuned to the current natural seasonal pattern of runoff, human water demands often peak later in the summer or may be spread more evenly throughout the year than the pattern displayed by the natural hydrograph.

Water Storage (Snow and Reservoir) and Water Demand

In relatively water-scarce areas, this seasonal mismatch between flow availability and water demands, coupled with inter-annual runoff variability and spatial mismatches between the location of water demands and supplies, has prompted considerable investment in artificial reservoirs and water conveyance infrastructure. Snowpack water storage, however, remains an important component of overall storage capacity in mountainous regions such as Colorado. Earlier snowmelt, as a result of climate change, and alterations of the hydrologic connectivity associated with land use, thus represents at least partial loss of a valuable natural capital asset - i.e. the water storage services historically provided by the snowpack.

Project Thrusts

  1. The core of this project is an improved characterization of the mountain snowpack via a synthesis of remotely sensed, ground-based, and modeled snowpack information. The synthesis of historical snowpack conditions will be leveraged toward:
  2. improving regional climate model predictions of future snowpack conditions,
  3. understanding ecosystem water partitioning under different land use and climate scenarios,
  4. providing improved snowpack information for water resource management,
  5. and socioeconomics and policy.

a) Example estimates of modeled snow water equivalent over the Sierra Nevada using the reconstruction modeling approach with MODIS data. Similar data sets will be derived for the Colorado Headwaters domain. b) Example estimates of NOAA WRF modeled precipitation over the Colorado headwaters versus observed precipitation at SNOTEL sites.

Questions to Address

  1. How will climate-related changes in snowmelt timing and magnitude alter the partitioning of the water balance, water availability, and the functioning of ecosystems
  2. How will alterations in snowmelt timing and landscape disturbances interact to influence threshold behavior and associated state changes in ecosystem structure and function
  3. How will stakeholders be affected by different scenarios of climate / land-scape change associated with changes in snowmelt partitioning and the fulfillment of inter-basin transfer and water allocation agreements
  4. How could improved information regarding future snowmelt timing contribute to more effective long-range multi-stakeholder water and forest planning within the current policy and legal institution framework, and are any policy changes warranted to take full advantage of such information

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