Dust on snow dilemma thickens

The federal government and NASA have confirmed what Durangoans have known for years. Dust stirred up by human activities is speeding up snowmelt and reducing runoff in the Colorado Rockies. A new study, led by NASA and co-authored by the U.S. Geological Survey, adds hard numbers to the dust on snow phenomenon and casts doubt on future water supplies.

The findings released this week show that peak spring runoff is coming as much as three weeks earlier, and that river volumes are falling by approximately 5 percent. The culprit is dust blowing onto the snowpack out of the desert Southwest.

“Reducing dust loads in this area and in similar mountainous areas around the world may help lessen regional effects of climate change,” said Jayne Belnap, a USGS desert soil expert and a co-author of the study.

Scientists have long known that dust was changing the reflective properties of snowfields and increasing the speed of runoff each year. However, this study is the first to measure the full impact of dust storms on snowmelt rates and basin runoff.

The team examined run-off in the Upper Colorado River basin between 1915-2003 and then simulated conditions prior to the settlement of the region in the mid-1800s. Lake sediment cores show that dust deposits in the San Juan Mountains increased by between 500 and 600 percent since the Southwest was settled. Based on these values, the team discovered that the Colorado River basin is experiencing a 35-billion cubic foot reduction in water every year because of dust. That amounts to enough water to supply the City of Los Angeles for 18 months.  

 “Actions to stabilize soils and minimize activities that disturb soils could potentially decrease dust emissions and the loss of runoff,” argued Tom Painter, the team leader and a snow hydrologist with NASA.

Ronni Egan, executive director of the Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, said residents of the Southwest should be taken aback by the numbers.

“Although we’ve know this for some time here in the Four Corners, it’s sobering to see the numbers and realize just how degraded our arid landscape has become,” she said.

However, Egan added that the fix can be a no-brainer. She encouraged Durangoans to contact the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and elected representatives and demand more sustainable land management.

“If folks are the least bit concerned about the future of their water supply, I suggest they demand land management practices that protect fragile soil crusts,” she said. “That would include further limiting livestock grazing and motorized travel on arid landscapes. Unfortunately, the agencies won’t develop the backbone to do these things until the general public demands them.”

Lynx reintroduction achieves success

The lynx experiment is coming to an end in the Southern Rocky Mountains, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife is deeming the long-term reintroduction effort a success. The Division announced this week that it had accomplished its goal of establishing a breeding population of the endangered cats and would now transition into monitoring mode.

Between 2003-10, researchers documented that at least 141 lynx kittens were born from cats that were reintroduced into the San Juan Mountains. Analysis indicates that the cats’ reproductive rate has outpaced mortality in the 11 years since the reintroduction program was launched, which is the hallmark of a self-sustaining population.

“What we’ve seen from lynx in Colorado is exactly what we’d expect to see from lynx in their northern habitat,” said retired DOW biologist Tanya Shenk, the lead researcher on the project from 1999-2010. “This supports our strong belief that the habitat in Colorado will sustain lynx over the long term.”However, biologists caution that climate change, events such as

wildfires and bark beetle epidemics along with future development could alter key portions of potential lynx habitat in Colorado. To track the lynx population, biologists will now use minimally invasive techniques like photography, snow-tracking and genetic sampling. This will replace the strategy of capturing and collaring individual lynx to gain detailed knowledge of their movements, habits and fate.

“This is a more cost-effective strategy that avoids subjecting individual cats to the stress of capture,” said Scott Wait, DOW Southwest Region senior biologist. “But it will give us a better way to track the persistence and hopefully expansion of lynx populations.”

DOW biologists believe lessons learned could be helpful in developing a plan to reintroduce the wolverine to Colorado.

FLC plans presidential inauguration

President Dene Kay Thomas will be officially inaugurated as Fort Lewis College’s eighth president, and its first woman president, next Fri., Oct. 1. The inauguration ceremony is set for 4 p.m. at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College.

The October ceremony will be the first formal inauguration ceremony in Fort Lewis College history. State and community leaders will join with college faculty, staff and students in welcoming President Thomas. She will be formally inaugurated by Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Ballantine. An inauguration address from the president will conclude the ceremony.

A celebratory reception, which immediately follows the inauguration ceremony, will be held at the Center of Southwest Studies and is also free and open to the public. Attendees can enjoy refreshments while having the opportunity to meet and visit with President Thomas.

Animas River clean-up set for Saturday


Durangoans can help touch up the banks of the Animas River this weekend. The Five Rivers Chapter of Trout Unlimited, with support from the City of Durango, is sponsoring its annual Animas River clean-up on Sat., Sept. 25.

TU is encouraging all river users and the community at large to turn-out and clean-up the river corridor following a busy summer of activity. Volunteers should meet under the main pavilion at Santa Rita Park at 9 a.m.

TU will supply latex gloves, trash bags, snacks and water. Volunteers will clean both sides of the river from 32nd Street to Rivera Bridge. Short sections of river will be assigned or you can request a favorite area. For more information, call 903-3010.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows