Snow is Next Year’s Trout

Crow's Nest near Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada. Snowmelt here flows to the Pacific Ocean and just to the east of here flows to the Great Basin.

Forester’s Log: Snow is Next Year’s Trout
©Mary Stuever (Used with permission.)

The Forester’s Log is a monthly column published in newspapers and magazines primarily in the American west. Stuever is a forester in the American Southwest. She can be reached at sse@nmia.com.
I have a new fascination with the white stuff. While most people don’t associate New Mexico with deep snow that blankets the ground for months, I have recently moved to a part of the state where it does. Here snow often damages buildings and closes highways. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains just shy of the Colorado border, the Chama Valley is a winter playground with breathtaking views that—this time of year—are highlighted in bright white.

My cross-country skis and snowshoes are getting more trail time this season than the past several winters put together. Still the natives are worried. Although there has been more snow in my yard since I lived in Questa , New Mexico in 1983, valley residents are concerned because the snow is below normal levels. For winter sports enthusiasts, the snow has been well timed. We greeted the New Year with road conditions that severely hampered much travel that did not include skis or chains, and had perfect snow conditions and sunny days for the annual Chama Chile Ski Classic held over Martin Luther King Day weekend.

Snow, however, is not just about today’s scenic views and sporting opportunities. The snow pack is the savings account for next summer’s water. Perhaps my friend Ti Piper summed up this concept best when he declared: snow is next year’s trout. Sound fishy? Well, Ti is not only passionate about fishing, but he also makes his living teaching, writing, and proselytizing about fish and fishing. Though it may be pretty obvious that fish need water, the rest of us are also quite affected by water shortages.

Snow pack makes up about 50-80% our water supply. Therefore, scientists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) keep close tabs on snow levels in the western United States . With a network of both manually and automatically measured snow sites, the NRCS has been building the record of snow accumulation and water release since 1935. There are many ways to look at the statistics, and anyone with internet access can find plenty to ponder. For example, in my new home river basin, snow pack is 97% of normal. Not too bad. However if you look at the month of January (most our snow pack was formed in December) we only have received 20% of normal precipitation for the month. Overall the area is running about 82% of normal for the current water year. (A water year runs from October to September.)

Snow—and the water that will come from it—affect people in many ways. Like to eat? Well, the farmers that produce your food are hoping for lots of snow to fall in the mountains.

Snow pack also influences next year’s fire season. Among natural resource agencies, seasoned fire management officers often have a reference mountain and a reference date. This local wisdom translates, if the snow melts off “fill in the blank” peak, by “fill in the blank” date, we are in for an extremely active fire season. Being a newcomer to these woods, I have yet to learn the local lexicon, but I’ve got my eyes open and I’m watching the mountain tops.

Mostly though, I am just wishing for more snow.

Mary Stuever
P.O. Box 52
Los Ojos , NM 87551
sse@nmia.com

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About colorfulclay

Hydrologist Clay Brandow has water on his mind most of the time, but now is seeking other diversions. Dear reader I'd love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment or two. It's easy.
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One Response to Snow is Next Year’s Trout

  1. Mary — Got a call last night from my old Water Science (hydrology and hydraulics) professor Dr. Verne Scott, now of Colorado. Verne said he really enjoyed your piece entitled: “Snow is Next Year’s Trout.” If that’s true we should have a great trout season this year in the Sierra Nevada (aka the snowy mountain range). We had a big snow year. It snowed again this Memorial Day weekend. Thanks for letting me post one of your works on my blog. Keep up the great writing in your column/blog the Forester’s Log. — Clay

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