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Water Wisdom: What does La Niña have in store?

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Skiers, rejoice! 2020 may have a silver—or white—lining, after all.

Projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict an 85 percent chance of a La Niña cycle returning to southwest Montana this winter. That should make all of us who ski and snowboard here at Big Sky Resort very happy.

La Niña cycles tend to favor our mountains, bringing above-average snowfall to our beloved Lone Peak. Sounds like it’s time to get the powder boards tuned and start working on some dryland training—opening day is nearly upon us.

While arcing knee-deep turns down Marx should give us all something to look forward to, a robust snowpack brings more than goggle tans to our mountain town. In Big Sky, our water supply depends on snow. Further downstream, in the Gallatin River, consistent winter snowfall means healthy summer stream flows, good news for trout and the anglers who pursue them. 

This connection between winter snow and summer flow is part of the Water Cycle, a fragile hydrologic relationship that determines when and where water is available. As the snowpack builds throughout the winter, water is safeguarded in its frozen state, waiting for warmer weather and the sweet release of spring. The more snow that piles up, the more water there is to be released. And that’s a good thing, right?

Well, not so fast. In the last several decades, a deep snowpack hasn’t guaranteed an abundant summer water supply. Why? You guessed it, global climate change. This human-caused phenomenon is inextricable from every natural process on Earth, and the Water Cycle is no different.

In the Treasure State, as temperatures continue to trend higher, our snowpack continues to decrease, according to the recently published Montana Climate Assessment. Not only that, but spring is arriving earlier, causing what snow we do get to melt rapidly and flow quickly out of the watershed, without recharging our underground aquifers. In Big Sky, we all draw our household water from these aquifers, whether we’re connected to the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, have our own onsite wells, or benefit from a shared community system at our housing developments. 

This trend is concerning for many reasons, chief among them the negative effects an inadequate water supply can have on the ecological integrity of our surface waters. In fact, the largest threat to Big Sky’s water quality might just be Big Sky’s water quantity. The two are related, and less of the latter means big trouble for the former.

Lower flows lead to higher concentrations of pollutants because there isn’t enough dilution. Pollution doesn’t necessarily increase, but its impact can when water supply is inadequate. Knowing this, every skier and snowboarder in Big Sky should be a water conservationist. Changing your water-consuming behaviors won’t bring more snow to our mountain town, but it could help keep more water in the upper watershed longer, adding essential resiliency to our fragile water supply.

Conservation strategies are numerous, and can be implemented on scales both large and small. Instead of a five-minute shower, take a three-minute shower. Consult an environmental engineer before building an addition to your home so as to avoid disturbing a wetland. Upgrade all the appliances in your home to water-saving models (the Gallatin River Task Force has a rebate program with cash incentives). Or consider restoring streambanks on your property to a more natural state. All these efforts can make a difference and they’ll be essential for the future of a sustainable Big Sky.

At lower elevations, in warmer climes, people have their rain dances. Here, we pray for snow. This winter, it appears the gods have heard us. If they deliver the goods, let’s return the favor come spring, and for every spring from here on out. Let’s keep what water we can in the upper watershed by committing to water conservation.

David Tucker is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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