Colorado Mountain Peaks

Yes, there is such a thing for all of you non-hydrologically minded people out there! For those in the water resources industry, particularly in the U.S., October 1st starts a New Water Year, a day we have been recognizing for over 100 years.

People don’t typically think of October as a time of renewal or fresh starts—not when the leaves are falling, the grass is starting to brown, and for some reason, pumpkin spice everything is on sale. To me, that in itself signals the end-of-times. However, it is a time of fresh starts for hydrologists. By October 1, here in the western U.S., the snowpack from the previous year has melted off (what’s going to melt), and the soil has been drying under the summer sun. It’s time for the water cycle to start over. It’s time to turn over the soil and open it up for some winter moisture; time to start a new tab on your rain gage spreadsheet and start from 0.0” again; and it’s time to dust off your snow board. Not the downhill snow board – the snow measuring snow board! The CoCoRaHS website describes it as “a flat board, painted white, ideally about 16" x 16" that comes in very handy for measuring snowfall”.

Here in Colorado, about 75% of our annual water supply comes from the snow pack that starts accumulating around October 1. This is the time when we start watching the peaks along the front range, hoping they’ll remain cloaked in white until late spring—one of the best signs that we’ve had a good snow pack and might just be headed for a good water year. A good snow pack fills our reservoirs, replenishes the soil, and lets us ski and snowshoe well into June. We haven’t had too many good water years over the last 20 years—that’s how far back the current drought in the Colorado River basin goes. We’ve seen the impacts with record low water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead—two major reservoirs in the lower part of the basin. And we can smell it too—with soot in the air from a Colorado summer fire season that now lasts into November.

Solutions to living with frequent drought include conservation, changes in agriculture, power generation, and water supply operations, and mitigating losses in the water system. We probably have the technology to improve our situation; the question is whether we have the willingness to cooperate across sectors and the determination to fund the efforts.

As they say, Hope Springs Eternal, though on October 1, the first day of a New Water Year, we might say Hope Falls Eternal. So, raise a glass on this first day of the New Water Year – and let’s toast to a wet one.