Tools and Resources: Water in the West

The West is known for its amazing landscapes and arid climate, both of which drive the region’s natural hydrology. After over a century of engineering rivers – and an ever-increasing number of human demands resulting from recent rapid population growth – it’s difficult to separate the impacts on our system of water management due to human development from regional climate patterns.

Water supply in the West depends on seasonal snowpack, which usually accumulates between late fall and spring. Snowpack is essential to creating healthy flowing rivers that support recreation, tourism, and habitat for thousands of species. Communities also rely on the snowpack to fill reservoirs that supply cities and towns with a steady supply of drinking water year-round.

However, it’s not just the amount of snowpack we receive in the West that impacts healthy flowing rivers — it’s also the type of precipitation we receive during the winter months and the time of year the snowpack melts. In the last half-century, many Western states have received greater amounts of precipitation as rainfall as opposed to snowfall, and snowmelt and subsequent peak runoff have shifted by days and even weeks. Add to that changing water management regimes and an ever-increasing need for collaboration, and you can see why water availability has become one of the greatest challenges facing the West.