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Streams Give Clues About Changing Climate's Effect on Water

Judy Fahys/KUER
Paul Brooks, a University of Utah hydrologist, is part of a research team that's zeroing in on how climate change is affecting mountain water and, ultimately, the water supplies that support communities.

What would happen to life in the West if the water flowing into streams and reservoirs shrinks by a quarter of what we've come to expect?

That’s the question triggered by a new study on how a changing climate is affecting our natural water storage system, the mountains. It’s findings on the link between mountain streams and climate change offers troubling hints of what might be in store for Utah’s water supply.

“It compares the differential effects of the two major characteristics of climate,” says Paul Brooks, a University of Utah hydrologist who was part of the study team. “One is precipitation: ‘Is it gonna rain or is it gonna snow?’ And the other is temperature, how warm or how cold it is.”

Brooks and his Colorado research colleagues found that a shift from snow to rain in the Rocky Mountains means less water for streams that recharge aquifers and reservoirs. They also found that higher temperatures would reduce runoff even more dramatically – especially in streams west of the Continental Divide.

Brooks says these scientific findings have important, real-world implications in places like the thirsty Wasatch Front.

“And so now we have the changing climate, the variability in climate, forcing our hand on water on one side and growing population and growing demand forcing our hand on the other side.”

That means Utah’s water managers will probably need to retool everyday practices for catching, storing and delivering water, he says, and studies like this can help them make the most of the water resources of the future.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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