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Natural Perspectives: Winter snows crucial to our water supply

February 01, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • This is a small portion of a flock of 5,000 snow geese that were feeding on a fallow field at the Salton Sea on the wildlife refuge.
This is a small portion of a flock of 5,000 snow geese that… (Lou Murray, HB Independent )

Thursday is Groundhog Day. According to legend, if a groundhog comes out of hibernation and sees its shadow on this day, we will have six more weeks of winter.

We sure could use more winter. Since California, like most of the United States, hasn't had much of real winter yet, our only chance for a good snow in the mountains lies ahead of us. It's been so warm that some pundits were calling the past month "Junuary."

Let's hope that Mr. Groundhog doesn't see his shadow, because we sure need the snow.

There is a very good reason for us to care about snow in the mountains, and it has nothing to do with skiing. Mountain snowpack is where much of our drinking water comes from. Not only is mountain snowpack crucial to our drinking water supply, it is essential to California agriculture.

Farmers in the Central Valley and Imperial Valley grow much of our nation's food supply, especially fresh winter produce. They use water from the Sierras and Rockies, respectively, to wrest edibles from the soil.

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So far this year, it hasn't snowed much in either the Rocky Mountains, which supply water to the Colorado River, or the Sierras, which supply water to the California Aqueduct. That bodes ill for farmers and urban dwellers alike.

On Jan. 26, Vic and I attended a lecture and slide show at the Newport Beach Public Library. Photographer and author Peter McBride was promoting his new book, "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict."

As I expected, his photography was stunning. Many of the photos were aerial shots, providing a unique perspective on the river and its surroundings. What I hadn't expected was such thought-provoking text.

To gather material and photographs for this book, McBride and his co-author, Jonathan Waterman, traveled the Colorado River from its headwaters in Colorado to its end at the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

A series of dams along the 1,450-mile length of the river helps accumulate water in years of high flow, and generate electricity. But we are in a period of drought, warming climate, and low flow.

As a result, reservoirs all along the river are dropping in water level. If the water level in Lake Mead drops below 1,050 feet, the hydroelectric turbines of Hoover Dam that supply power to 29 million people will become inoperable. In late 2010, levels had dipped to only 1,081 feet, a mere 31 feet away from power production failure.

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