Las Vegas (KLAS) — Modern Las Vegas would not exist without the water of the Colorado River. About 90% of our community’s water comes from a river, which is struggling after 20 years of drought and climate change.
Brian Domonokos was educated as an engineer, but you wouldn’t be wrong if you called him a professional snowman.
He is the director of the Colorado Snow Survey, an important project run by the little-known federal agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It monitors and measures snowfall in the Rocky Mountains.
“The critical time frame is almost now to April, late April,” he told 8 News Nows. “That’s the biggest snowpack and gives us the best idea of how much snow we’re going to actually get into the stream, which of course will be our water source for Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.”
We stumbled up 11,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains on snowshoes, just a stone’s throw from the Continental Divide, to check out one of more than 100 monitoring sites called SNOTEL.
Data from SNOTEL sensors is sent around the world every hour. The team conducts tests to measure the depth of the snow, but more importantly, its weight. The weight lets them know how much snow will eventually melt and trickle down to the Colorado River.
Ninety percent of the river’s water comes from rain and snow on the western side of the Rocky Mountains. Ninety percent is also a figure for how much of Las Vegas’ water supply comes from the Colorado River, often described as the most endangered river in North America.
Everything that happens in Las Vegas; all growth and economic activity depends on the river.
“We know that snow cover is 83 percent of normal right now at this site,” Domonokos said.
While the 83% normal may not sound that bad, it comes after more than 20 years of drought and rising temperatures in the West. A hotter, drier climate means the West is stuck in a vicious cycle of more wildfires, more dust storms, and less rain and snow.
Particles that fall on snow can affect how and when it melts, and because the soil is drier, most of the melt is absorbed and never enters the river.
The results are not difficult to see that Lake Mead and Lake Powell are at historically low levels. Lower Colorado states have enacted cuts to the amount of water they can draw from the river, and more cuts are likely.
Snow survey teams don’t make climate predictions, a job that falls to other federal and state agencies, but 2022 has proven to be a difficult problem.
In January, snow cover appears to be at or near historical averages. But the snowfall in February is a bit like falling off a cliff. Will there be enough snow to return to normal this year? Experts say it’s possible, but unlikely.
Snow monitors hope that when Las Vegas vegans frolic in pools and water lawns, they’ll realize how precious a resource is.
He added: “General awareness across the United States will really help to increase and better understand how important it is and why monitoring it and being conservative about the water that snow holds is such an important part of life.”
The Snow Survey Program was created nearly 90 years ago under the Department of Agriculture because water in rivers is critical to irrigating millions of acres of farmland in the West.
Click here to learn more about the Snow Survey Program.