More Dust Storms = Faster Snowmelt in the Rockies, Less Water This Summer

By Eliza Strickland | May 26, 2009 3:47 pm

RockiesFierce dust storms this spring have stained Colorado’s snow-covered peaks with brown, red, and pink dust, and state officials point out that this isn’t just a change in scenery. The darker snow is absorbing more radiation from the sun and is therefore melting faster and sooner than it normally would, which is upsetting the careful water rationing that defines life in the American West. Twelve dust storms barreled into the southern Rockies from the deserts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico so far this year…. That, coupled with unseasonably warm temperatures, has sped up the runoff here, swelling rivers to near flood stage, threatening to make reservoirs overflow and fueling fears that there will not be enough water left for late-summer crops [Los Angeles Times]. 

In Colorado, melting snow accounts for about 80 percent of the water that flows through rivers and ends up in the state’s lakes and reservoirs. Colorado water engineer Scott Brinton explains that the early snowmelt could spell disaster for thousands of farmers and ranchers in the region who depend on slowly melting snow to provide water flows over the dry summer months…. “Those people who were relying on the mountain snowpack are going to have difficulty later in the year…. There’s not a whole lot we can do about it,” Brinton said. “We’re telling people, ‘You’ll be getting your water early this year, so use it while it lasts'” [Greenwire]. But scientists note that this may not be just a year of freak storms, it may be a harbinger of things to come.

Ever since settlers came to the West, dust has been on the rise. Grazing herds of cattle broke through the fragile crust of the desert soil, new developments raked away native plants that held the topsoil in place, and, more recently, off-road vehicles have churned up clouds of dust. Scientists say the amount of dust in the Rockies has increased five-fold since the late 1800s. But even without dust storms, forecasters predict that global warming will reduce the soil quality in the western United States to dust-bowl levels by 2050, said Jayne Belnap, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey…. “It’s just a harbinger of the future,” Belnap said of the dust storms. “This is the kind of world we need to imagine we’re going to be living in and decide if we can afford this dust” [Los Angeles Times].

Scientists are already experimenting with localized solutions. While some have called for restoring native grasses and other soil-stabilizing species across the region, such activities cannot occur so long as the soils continue to blow away…. Other options, including those aimed more directly at water supply, are to seed clouds with the hopes of increasing snow volumes in the high-elevation mountains [Greenwire]. But to truly reverse the trend, broader efforts are necessary: like offsetting developments with conservation efforts, and, on the global scale, reaching an agreement to slow global warming.

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Image: flickr / dsearls

  • Nick

    Also, on the merely local scale, houses could be build with giant cisterns sunk beneath them, not as power-efficient as an overhead way of pressurizing your water system, but if you could build a cistern big enough to hold a years water for four people, and then have the house built to capture all the rainwater that falls on the property, you’d do a great deal towards keeping any one particular place livable. You could easily purify the water with solar distillation for drinking and bathing purposes.

    In fact, with the right technology, you could have the entire attic space be the solar distillation chamber – since heat rises, and the sun almost always rises. Water is pretty good for holding on to temperature – you could use it in an SHPEG system to capture excess heat in the earth for future use (winter heating).

  • Dr Edo McGowan

    Several recent articles in the lay and scientific literature have commented on the levels of drug resistant pathogens pumped out into the environment by American sewer plants. The solids (biosolids) from these plants are predominantly spread on agricultural land (70% are land applied). A large portion of Southern California’s sewage is applied on Arizona soils. As this material, formerly classified as hazardous waste, dries and blows about with the dust storms, it is depositing antibiotic resistance across large areas. In the case of snow, this impacts the area’s fresh water resources. Dr. Amy Pruden has written on antibiotic resistant genes (ARGs) which are not affected by chlorine levels used in water treatment and these ARGs are so small that they pass through many of the current filtering systems used in water treatment. Thus she has tracked these ARGs into the fresh water supplies. Thus the glass of water that you drink may contain these ARGs. Once within the human gut, these ARGs can be transferred to the human gut flora and represent tiny time bombs. U.S. EPA has been informed of this but seems reluctant to address the risk. It has steadfastly refused to effectively look at antibiotic resistance in sewage, yet again numerous peer reviewed papers discuss, and for some time have discussed, the creation of antibiotic resistance by sewer plants. U.S. EPA is the major promoter of land applied sewage sludge since this material had been banned from ocean dumping because of adverse impacts on marine life. It is difficult to, at the same time, promote and regulate something. In the interim, the risk of increasing antibiotic resistance within the U.S. population continues to rise.

  • Joannah

    Yeah talk about increasing dust. We’re living in Cyprus (just at the edge of Europe) and now as we speak we’re covered in dust coming from Egypt. Every year there’s more and more of it and the allergy level is increasing in the people by thousands.


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