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for people who care about the West

Allen Best flunks the snow test

  Dear HCN,

Allen Best (HCN, 2/18/02: How does snow melt?) suggests that we can identify "real" Westerners using the test question, "How does snow melt?" It's an appropriate test. Unfortunately, Mr. Best flunks his own test. Quoting from the last paragraph: "For the record: It melts from the ground up. Not knowing such things does not portend the decline of civilization in the West, but it does say that the relation of Westerners to their landscape is changing."

Snow does not melt from the ground up. If that were the case, we would not have a seasonal snowpack, no ski industry, and no water from snow melt runoff to support municipal, industrial and agricultural demands for water.

As all Westerners know, snowmelt starts at the top of the snowpack in the spring when the sun is higher in the sky and air temperatures become warmer. A classic example of Westerners passing the "snow test" is illustrated by land-use codes recently passed by San Miguel County to protect the pristine values of high-elevation areas around Telluride.

Construction of trophy homes at high elevation by the likes of Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone has led the county to look for a scientific basis on which to develop land-use codes that protect resource values in these sensitive areas while allowing for prudent and reasonable development.

My research group worked with the county to develop such codes, and presented them at a standing-room-only meeting before the county board of commissioners. One of the major land-use codes was no winter plowing of roads that accessed sensitive areas. We were asked why. The reason is because the snow pack melts from the top down. As melt water starts to move vertically through the snowpack, ice lenses and other features cause the liquid water to move laterally downslope. A plowed road acts like a ditch, intercepting this lateral flow and routing snow melt runoff onto the road.

In turn, snowmelt runoff turns these plowed roads into gullies, something every real Westerner knows and something "newbys" learn quickly when they get their new four-wheel drives stuck in the spring. When we presented this rationale at the townhouse meeting in Telluride to developers, homeowners, working stiffs, gainfully unemployed fun pigs, USFS personnel, and others that make up the cross-section of people in the "New West," there was no argument. They understood. They passed the snow test. And the county board of commissioners passed the land-use codes.

Mark Williams
Boulder, Colorado

The writer is a snow hydrologist at CU-Boulder.