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Climate change impacts Wyoming

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sheep Mountain, Wyoming, March 13, 2008
Image: Leila Monaghan.

Cheek numbing, eye watering winds whip across the plains of the Laramie Basin, Wyoming. The ground is yellow brown with patches of recalcitrant snow. Sheep Mountain is losing its winter coat. All normal affairs for March. The March edition of the Wyoming Basin Outlook Report also reports, based on February accumulations, that Snow Water Equivalent is at 99% of average.

The SWE is a measure of the snow pack that feeds the streams, rivers and reservoirs that Wyoming, Nebraska and other states depend upon for water. Current averages are compared to the average SWE for 1971-2000. In recent years, snow pack in this region has been anything but normal.

The Outlook Reports are issued January to June. Since March 2000, only five of 46 months have been above normal. While many of the winter months have been near normal, June's snow pack is far below average. Even in 2006, the wettest year of the last eight years, June snow pack was only 37% of the average.

In an e-mail interview with Wikinews, Lee Hackleman, Water Supply Specialist, said

Cquote1.svg The snowpack is melting out several weeks earlier than average. The higher temperatures in the spring are responsible for this. There seems to be a significant drop in the amount of runoff that we are able to retain in our reservoirs, a lot of runoff seems to be soaking into the ground. We do not have the June flood events any more. We use to [sic] be cool then hot, not cool warm then hot. Cquote2.svg

—Lee Hackleman, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Graph of USDA Data from Wyoming Basin Outlook Reports
Image: Leila Monaghan.

In a phone interview with Wikinews, Myra Wilensky of the National Wildlife Federation in nearby Colorado, also commented on changing snow patterns.

Cquote1.svg In the west, nothing is ever clockwork, the patterns shift, a good amount of snowfall in the season and then a quick warm up. We don’t get the prolonged snowpack that we used to have. May have a really wet snow year, then really dry with rain.

Can’t count on getting estimated amount of snow anymore. March and November have historically been our snowiest months, but this year it’s been a fairly dry in March and November. Winter is shorter now.

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—Myra Wilensky, National Wildlife Foundation.

Snow at Sunset, Laramie, Wyoming, January 2008
Image: Leila Monaghan.

This is part of a general increase in temperature in the region. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cited by the National Wildlife Federation estimates that the temperature will rise almost 7 degrees (F) by 2100.

Cquote1.svg This will likely cause most, if not all, of the state's glaciers to disappear. Wildfires may increase, droughts could get worse and rains--when they do come--will likely come in more severe downpours that may cause more flash flooding. Warmer temperatures also mean less snowpack in the mountains, leading to more winter runoff and reduced summer flows in many Wyoming streams. Cquote2.svg

National Wildlife Federation.

The NWF's main concern is the fate of the wildlife in the region, particularly how the impact of pine bark beetles. Warmer winters have led to mass infestations in Western lodge pole pine forests and The New York Times reports that they are now moving on to white bark pines in Yellowstone particularly impacting grizzly bears there. In turn, the grizzlies are shifting to feeding on Canadian thistle, an invasive species that might be choking out native plants.

Changing weather patterns have also affected large migratory animals.

Cquote1.svg This year winter came late. When the heavy snows hit, the mule deer and the elk were spread out, had to be fed. Feeding isn’t newsworthy, happened before like in 1982 but it wasn’t as successful this year because they were so spread out. Cquote2.svg

—Myra Wilensky, National Wildlife Foundation.

The dry bench of the Wind River Mountains, August 2008
Image: Leila Monaghan.

Water for people has also become a major issue in the region.

Cquote1.svg There is a much greater concern for water rights than there used to be. There is not enough late season water to satisfy everyone all the time. Cquote2.svg

—Lee Hackleman, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Kansas has long fought Wyoming over water rights issues. And Montana is currently suing Wyoming, claiming that the Yellowstone River Compact signed in 1950 gives rights to both surface and ground water, while Wyoming disagrees. On February 18, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the lawsuit.

Cquote1.svg Wyoming officials say they are adhering to the compact and that the drought has meant less water for both states.

But Montana says Wyoming is storing more water in reservoirs than the compact permits and allowing excessive pumping of groundwater reserves that feed into the two rivers.

Those "groundwater" reserves are tapped by some Wyoming farmers to irrigate their fields. Energy companies discharge large volumes of groundwater during production of coal-bed methane, a type of natural gas prevalent in northern Wyoming.

Cquote2.svg

U.S. Water News Online, March 2008.

Authorities do not see this fight over increasingly limited water resources going away anytime soon.

Cquote1.svg Everyone is going to have to learn to get by with less. Cquote2.svg

—Lee Hackleman, Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Sources

This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.

References

  • Sherk, George William. Dividing the Waters, (2000) Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN:9041198199