LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Without water from the Colorado River, modern Las Vegas couldn’t exist. Our community gets about 90% of its water from the river, but after two decades of drought and climate change, the river is in trouble.
Brian Domonokos was educated to be an engineer, but you wouldn’t be wrong if you called him a professional snowman.
He’s a supervisor for the Colorado snow survey, a crucial program carried out by a little-known federal agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It monitors and measures snowfall in the Rockies.
“The critical time frame is pretty much about now to April, late April,” he tells 8 News Nows. “It’s that maximum snowpack that gives us the best idea of how much snow we’re going to have to actually run off into the streams and that will of course be our water supply for Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah.”
Stumbling along atop snowshoes, we crawl up beyond the 11,000 foot level of the Rockies, a stone’s throw from the Continental Divide, to check out one of the more than 100 monitoring sites called a SNOTEL.
Data from a SNOTEL sensor gets sent out to the world hourly. The team carries out tests to measure the depth of the snowpack, but more importantly, its weight. The weight is what gives them an idea of how much of the snow will eventually melt and trickle its way down to the Colorado River.
Ninety percent of the water in the river comes from rain and snow that fall on the western side of the Rockies. Ninety percent is also the number for how much of the Las Vegas water supply comes from the Colorado, which is often described as the most endangered river in North America.
Everything that happens in Las Vegas; all growth and economic activity is dependent on the river.
“We know that right now at this site, the snowpack is 83% of normal,” Domonokos said.
While 83% of normal may not sound so bad, it comes after more than two decades of extended drought in the West and temperatures have climbed. The hotter, drier climate means the West is caught in a vicious cycle, more wildfires, more dust storms, less rain, and snow.
Particulates that fall atop the snow affect how and when it melts, and because the soil is drier, much of the snowmelt is absorbed and never makes it to the river.
The result is easy to see Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at historic lows. The lower Colorado River states have already enacted cuts to the amount of water they can take from the river, and more cuts are likely.
The snow survey team doesn’t make climate predictions, the job falls to other federal and state agencies but 2022 had already proven to be a puzzler.
In January, it looked like the snowpack would be at or near the historic average. But snowfall in February sort of fell off a cliff. Is there still a possibility of enough snow to get back to normal this year? The experts say it’s possible but unlikely.
The snow monitors hope that as Las Vegans frolic in pools and water their lawns, they appreciate how precious the resource is.
“A general awareness across the entire U.S. would really help boost and give a better understanding of how important it is and why monitoring it and being conservative with the water that we have with the snowpack is such an important part of life,” he added.
The snow survey program was created almost 90 years ago under the Department of Agriculture because water from the river is crucial to the irrigation of millions of acres of cropland in the West.
Click here for more information on the snow survey program.