Best of the West: Snowpack ‘off to a good start;’ North Dakota revives its native grasses; Oregon upgrades its state parks; Aspen to open new ski terrain

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Nov. 22, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Norah Moran)  

For many western communities, Thanksgiving often beckons the start of winter. With much of the region experiencing a historical drought due to a limited snowpack last year, many this year will be closely watching the snow totals as a harbinger for next summer’s water season – and so far, it’s off to a decent start.  

Much of the region’s early-season snowpack came as a result of a rare category 5 atmospheric river storm that drenched much of the coast and covered the mountains of Northern California in snow – a phenomenon recently documented by satellite imagery from NASA that shows just how quickly the effects of the drought were overcome thanks to the storm. That same storm brought heavy snows to Colorado, including the Yampa-White-Little Snake River Basin area in the northwest corner of the state that reported 337% of the median to-date snowpack. The rest of the state’s snowpack is right in line with historical averages. It’s a similar story in Wyoming, where the snowpack is average but much better than this time last year.  The Utah Department of Natural Resources also reported a good start to the new water year, but many "low-to-middle elevations" areas may end up with rain instead of snow due to warmer-than-average temperatures expected during the season. 

Though the season is looking promising, last year was so dry that the region will need several consecutive years of solid snowpack to quell the effects of the drought.  With wildfires devastating mountain ecosystems across the West, a new report from the University of Nevada, Reno and Oregon State University concluded that successful forest revegetation hinges on, among other factors, an adequate lasting snowpack. 

While it's always difficult to predict the year’s snowpack, several western communities are looking into cloud-seeding to ensure more precipitation each year. Idaho Power estimates that its cloud-seeding operation results in about “600,000 acre-feet of additional water in the Payette, Boise and Wood River basins as well as over 400,000 acre-feet of additional water each year in the upper Snake River basin.” A similar cloud-seeding program has been proposed for the Sangre de Christo mountains in New Mexico. Other states have taken steps to make sure more of the water remains in the reservoirs.  Arizona, California and Nevada recently committed at least $100 million over the next two years to dramatically reduce consumption and keep more water in Lake Mead. 

NATIVE GRASSES: Having lost more than 70% of its native prairie, The North Dakota Game and Fish Department recently unveiled a plan to bring together landowners, conservation groups, scientists and others to restore native grasslands. Funding is available through the program to establish grasses and install grazing infrastructure, such as fencing and water. Producers also are eligible to receive rental payments for the first three years as the land transitions from cropland to grazing land. "This is about keeping working lands working, getting it done on the private playing field, and we know in that arena, we have to come together, we've got to collaborate," Greg Link, the department’s conservation and communications division chief, said. Learn more in WGA’s Invasive Grass Management Toolkit

STATE PARK: Over the next two years, Oregon will spend $50 million to upgrade its state parks, including the popular Silver Falls and Smith Rock state parks. The money will go towards expanded camping opportunities, infrastructure upgrades, a new visitor center and other improvements.

NEW SKI TERRAIN: The Aspen Skiing Company’s plan to add 153 acres of terrain and a chairlift on the Pandora section on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain in Colorado was recently approved by the Pitkin County Commission. The terrain is above 10,000 feet in elevation and mostly east-facing so it holds the snow well. It would also serve to spread out people by increasing the skiable terrain on Aspen Mountain by 22%. The last time terrain was added on Aspen Mountain was in 1985. Skico officials said they will start logging and glading trees in summer 2022, add the chairlift in summer 2023 and open the terrain for skiing in winter 2023-24.

SPACE RACE: Colorado native, Jessica Watkins, is making history as the first Black woman to stay on the International Space Station for a long-duration mission. Watkins will fly to the space station as a member of the SpaceX Crew-4 mission, a part of the Artemis program with the ultimate goal of reaching the moon in 2024 to establish a sustainable human lunar presence by the end of 2029. Read her incredible story. 

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