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    New NASA Tech Fights Against Water Uncertainty, But How Much Can It Know?

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Spring, at least the part of spring that matters the most in the western U.S., happened very suddenly here in southwestern Colorado. It had been on and off warm since mid-February, with the daytime peak temperatures reaching higher and higher every week, and, by early-April, the valley floor was clear of snow and edging on green. Trees in the desert below were starting to bud, now unfrozen and muddy hillsides released Liberty Bell-sized boulders onto the highway, and every cow had a calf learning against her legs (they keep to a schedule). A good time, but it still wasn’t real spring.

    Real spring happened two, maybe three weeks ago. I noticed it walking to the car one pre-dawn morning, a roar of wet white noise from about 100 yards away. The river was up. A sleepy, glassy trickle all through the fall and winter, the West Dolores was now a dirty torrent brushing the bottoms of nearby bridges. A few miles down the road, said river meets the main branch of the Dolores River, now full of giant standing waves, foaming holes, and newly revealed channels. You might look at it and think; now, that could kill a human being.

    Figure this all seems like a long introduction to a science story, but that rise of the river runs everything in the West. The water arrives, released from snowpack in the high mountains, and immediately the river valleys are crowded with people and their boats, fishing rods, and money. Restaurants here stay open all winter, serving a few locals per day, just so they can fill up and make a profit in the warmer months. Rafting and fishing outfitters take the boards of the windows, the RV parks start buzzing, and, once again, the weirdo mountain tourism gamble most everyone around here makes year after year pays off. Sometimes it doesn't; the local bakery, Karla's, suddenly shut down and sold off all of its inventory just a few days ago.

    Dolores River running through Colorado's Paradox Valley

    A bunch of RVs and kayaks is still pretty lightweight compared to what the river means further downstream. Just past the town of Dolores, it hits the second largest reservoir in the state, where the water is divvied out to the farmers and ranchers taking up most of the flat land between the mountains and the New Mexico and Utah borders. (Some will get barely any this year.) Flour, beans, and beef are the big industries, with most of the related agricultural producers occupying the relatively hidden ground between factory farming and newjack organic-everything farms and ranches. (Though there are plenty of newjacks too.) Something like heritage farming, but enough to keep a few small towns occupied. And all of it totally dependent on an irrigation network dating back to the 1800s--and the river that feeds it.

    Going even further downstream, the story gets bigger still. The Dolores turns north just before hitting Utah and soon enough drains into the Colorado River via the San Miguel River. Along with the Gunnison, Eagle, and Fraser Rivers, it’s one of the Colorado’s formative sources. In Utah, the river takes on yet more snowmelt from other rivers draining into the heavyweight Green and San Juan tributaries, and then backs up at Lake Powell reservoir, the first of five massive impoundments between the river’s source and the Mexican border.

    While these reservoirs slowly evaporate and drain toward obsolescence, their water, nearly all of it delivered from mountain snow in Colorado and Utah, is what enables the cities of the western U.S. to grow and thrive. It’s not remotely sustainable for water users or a particularly good deal for the river, but, until old water habits are broken (we’re getting there), the West’s dependency is real.

    But the most crucial reservoir in the whole river system has nothing to do with concrete or people. And it’s as old as the mountains themselves: snowpack. Every year, the weather gets cold and twin atmospheric pipelines from the northwest and southwest deliver storm after storm, depositing the white stuff at high elevations where it only accumulates, packing frozen water deeper and denser until, well, about two weeks ago. When exactly that happens is a function of increasing temperatures and increasing daylight hitting a critical point in concert. As Earth orbits fairly reliably in space, this point happens fairly reliably within the calendar year.

    The United States Geological Survey, which keeps an eye on waterflow around the country closer than you would even believe, estimates the western U.S. gets about 75 percent of all of its water from mountain snowpack. And, once again, runoff estimates for this year are low; currently, the Dolores River, while making a mighty roar, is only at about 60 percent of normal for this time of year. Meanwhile, the National Drought Mitigation Center’s spring runoff forecast for the state remains “bleak” (though better than 2012). Bleak for boaters; tourists; farmers; toilet tanks and lawns in Los Angeles; and for the entire Southwest’s forest fire prospects, which look to be, once again, devastating (2014 too).

    Less water is another new norm for the west, which you’ve probably already assumed. Less people is not, however, looking to be the case. With more sustained effort, water use can and will be pushed lower, though whether that’s at the same rate as declining snowpack is doubtful.

    Do we have to, at some point, cede control/knowledge to the mountains?

    The ability to track that snowpack and subsequent runoff accurately in the future is one of the most urgent tasks for the West’s long-term sustainability. Because of the snowpack reservoir, we’re lucky enough to be able to theoretically forecast how much water we’ll have many months in advance of that water actually making it downstream. But the catch is that in practice, it’s difficult. We’re talking about needing to know the depth and density of snow over an enormous and rugged geographic region, and over a long period of time. There are sensing stations to do some of the measurement work, but otherwise the whole thing has relied on water managers sticking metal tubes in the snow.

    One of the things that makes water management so interesting is that it resists smart-gridding, or any of the sort of precise control electricity has just by definition. There are gauges and meters and intense concrete aqueducts all over, but not far up from that is just a rush of wet white noise, and not much further up from that a bunch of accumulated snow lining a high-altitude wilderness.

    Aboard NASA's ASO plane/via NASA

    Is this how it has to be? Do we have to, at some point, cede control/knowledge to the mountains? Maybe not so much. Today NASA is trumpeting that it’s a “new era” in snowpack measurements as the agency unveils the first two maps from its Airborne Snow Observatory project. The ASO is basically just a small plane equipped with a LIDAR remote-sensing system. It’s currently at the beginning of a three-year mission to test the technology’s ability to measure both the water content of the snowpack and something called the snow albedo, which controls the rate of runoff.

    "Changes in and pressure on snowmelt-dependent water systems are motivating water managers, governments and others to improve understanding of snow and its melt," says Tom Painter, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The western United States and other regions face significant water resource challenges because of population growth and faster melt and runoff of snowpacks caused by climate change. NASA's Airborne Snow Observatory combines the best available technologies to provide precise, timely information for assessing snowpack volume and melt."

    Images via ASO

    So, it’s not exactly resource management perfection. Nor, perhaps, should it be. The development of the West has over the past century become precarious in some part because it’s not built for the randomness of the water cycle it depends on. It's built for an imagined endless abundance of water and the perfect control of industrial civilization. Both are illusions, as is the exactitude they suggest. Western expectations are coming more and more in line with that, which is perhaps the most important thing, as is the knowledge that precision is the enemy of adaptation.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv