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Sarah Jane Keller | Jan 18, 2013 05:00 AM

There’s fine dust in the tire ruts now
Along the old feed road
They’re workin’ on a six year drought
Just so you know

-James McMurtry, “Six Year Drought

If it seems like there’s less snow on the ground than there used to be, it’s not your imagination. This year, the folks at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency in charge of keeping track of the West’s current snowpack and how it compares to the past, updated the years that define normal. And guess what? The new normal is officially drier than the old normal.

What's considered normal changes about every 10 years because many weather-watching organizations shift the 30-year average of observations that define “normal” climate. When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration changed its window for normal in 2011, and higher temperatures became the official status quo. This year, the snow and water trackers at the NRCS stopped using data from the 1971 to 2000 stretch and began defining normal as 1981 to 2010. The result is that wet years from the 1970s fell out of the average and dry years from the 2000s were rolled into it. Now drier is the new average over much of the West.

This is bad news for skiers and the industry they support, but the implications go beyond vexing powder fiends. Anyone who depends on the mountain runoff that fills reservoirs, waters crops, or who watches for floods in wet years will have to adjust their expectations of what 100 percent of normal snow and precipitation means.

For example, at one SNOTEL monitoring station in Yellowstone National Park, a key site for predicting Snake River flows for nearly all of southern Idaho’s agriculture, the moisture in the snow (which matters for water management more than depth) is 123 percent of the new normal. But it’s only 111 percent of the old normal.

Phil Morrisey, a hydrologist with the NRCS in Idaho says the change in normal can affect water users like raft companies that put boats on the water based on a certain runoff forecast or irrigators who depend on a specific percent of normal for adequate water amounts. Depending on which basin they’re in, water users will have to compensate by mentally subtracting five to 15 percent from this year’s percent of normal reports, until they get used to the new normal.

The idea that we’ll have to adjust our thinking to fit a new reality also resonates on a larger scale. A report released by the Bureau of Reclamation last December spells out how climate and human behavior will conspire to make sure the Colorado River can’t meet demands in the next 50 years, Texas is taking New Mexico to the Supreme Court over Rio Grande “water rustling” and while it’s still early in the winter to know how snowpack will shape up, a good chunk of the West is already mired in drought. Welcome to the new normal.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News intern.

Photo of the dry Southwest Colorado mountains in March 2011 courtesy of the author. Graphs courtesy of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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