Learning about the frozen gold in the hills | AspenTimes.com

Learning about the frozen gold in the hills

Derrick Wyle of NRCS, right, walks 12 year old Zechariah Matthews through the snow surveying process.

A fresh mantle of snow clothed the peaks above McClure Pass on Saturday morning as about a dozen people set out on snowshoes to learn about one of the area’s most precious resources: water.

“We’re trying to create a greater understanding of this frozen gold, which becomes liquid gold,” explained Sarah Johnson, education and outreach coordinator for the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

As part of its mission to “inspire people to explore, value and protect the Roaring Fork watershed,” the conservancy organized the expedition to one of the seven snow telemetry sites that monitor snowpack in the valley.

An eclectic group met at the Redstone Inn for the event, including a Colorado Mountain College sustainability student and a water attorney.

Jennifer Matthews, of New Castle, brought her 12-year-old son, Zechariah.

“We’re always looking for the opportunity to expose the kids to what impacts our community,” Matthews said.

Derrick Wyle, soil conservations and snow surveyor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, joined Johnson to demonstrate the hands-on method of snow measurement, which is still used where funding, access or other circumstances don’t allow for automated readings.

Wyle’s role has its roots in the work of Enos Mills, who was appointed Colorado snow observer around the turn of the century and spent weeks alone in the wilderness gathering data. Modern transportation and infrastructure usually alleviates the need for overnight trips even for the more remote sites, but surveyors are trained in survival skills and held to exacting standards.

Wyle was nevertheless patient with those who tried their hand at measuring snow depth and weight. Meanwhile, Johnson explained what the data actually mean.


Whether it’s obtained electronically and bounced off meteor fragments to a central computer, surveyed by plane or painstakingly collected by hand, snow telemetry comes down to two basic pieces of information: The depth of the snow and its snow water equivalent, which can then be used to calculate snow density.

Snow water equivalent brings snow accumulation in line with inches of rainfall by effectively determining how much water would cover a given area if all the snow was melted, and is much more useful than depth alone for forecasting water supply. Density is the ratio between snow water equivalent and depth, indicating whether the snow is fluffy and full of air or thick and full of water, which also has implications for runoff.

Why is it so important to track the water supply?

“Snow and rivers drive our local economy,” Johnson explained. “Whether you’re a rafting company, a ski company, a farmer or anyone who supports one of those industries, having that variability is pretty challenging. When we don’t have snow on the mountains, people are going to change their plans.”

The conservancy tracks snowpack and runoff data and compares them with a 30-year median for a given date, giving context within a changing climate.

As of the end of last week, snowpack in the Roaring Fork Watershed averaged about 78 percent of normal. Despite the new snow, that ratio has held fairly steady.


In order to match the normal peak accumulation, it would have to build up at 176 percent of the usual rate between now and early April, and that doesn’t seem to be in the forecast.

Even if the snowpack exceeds expectations, it’s hard to predict exactly what streamflows will look like. Spring temperatures and dust storms influence the rate at which the snow melts. A good snow year could wash downstream in a matter of weeks, or a comparatively weak snowpack could linger for months.

Meanwhile, water law does little to reflect the whims of nature.

“People have rights to that water whether it’s a drought year or not,” Johnson said. “We have to remember that it’s not just about skiing and rafting and all the things that keep us in business around here, but it’s also about the river as a living ecosystem.”

Climate models predict increasingly severe drought in the West. Johnson chooses to see them not as a prophecy of doom, but rather as a call for change.

“I have to believe that green grass lawns are not going to be the norm,” she said. “That’s not Colorado.”

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