Southwest 'Climate Hub' Focuses On Snowmelt Forecast

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
February 18, 2014
USDA/ARS Jornada Experimental Range

Earlier this month the Obama administration announced the creation of seven regional "climate hubs" that will zero in on the effects climate change.

The information they generate is meant to help farmers and ranchers across the country better respond to a changing climate where extreme weather events happen with greater frequency.

The Southwest climate hub is based at the Jornada Experimental Range, a climate research center in Las Cruces, N.M. It covers the states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California.

Agriculture in this arid region depends on heavily on snowpack that melts into the Rio Grande and Colorado River every spring. But in the last two decades there's been a lot less snow.   

"We're getting 10 to 15 percent less snowfall accumulation in the mountains and that could get worse as the temperature continues to increase," said hydrologist Al Rango.

Rango works at the Jornada Experimental Range, which has a wealth of data dating back to 1912, the year New Mexico became a state. Its first project as one of the nation's climate hubs is to improve their methodology for predicting snowmelt runoff in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

USDA/ARS Jornada Experimental Range

The National Science Foundation awarded the Jornada a five-year grant to upgrade and expand the tools they use to measure annual snowmelt. Researchers are in the final stages of complying the data which they will share with area farmers and ranchers.

Rango said their goal is to generate more accurate forecasts earlier in the year to help farmers better plan their growing season. But with the ongoing drought, some farmers are not convinced this will be helpful.

"We don't need scientists, we need water," said Joe Nelson of Anthony, N.M.

Nelson farms about 400 acres in near the border with Texas. With little river water to irrigate his crops he's had to pump from an underground aquifer. He's in the process of drilling a third well on his land. Each one comes at a $100,000 cost.

Other farmers across the Southwest are coping with the hotter, drier weather by changing to less water-dependent crops.