Unique Colorado study could help guide future water use in the West

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The study near Crested Butte is the first in North America to look at how water moves from the atmosphere to the ground and where it goes from there.

CRESTED BUTTE, Colorado — The Crested Butte area has it all — flowers, streams and towering peaks — and now it’s also temporarily home to a research center that’s part of a program like no other.

“This is truly the first atmospheric-to-bedrock field observatory in North America,” said Ken Williams, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “Those just don’t exist.”

Williams, who has been monitoring groundwater levels in the East River Valley near Crested Butte since 2014, talks about Project SAIL, short for Surface Atmospheric Integrated Field Laboratory.

The project brings equipment to make atmospheric measurements, which Williams says will give a fuller picture of what’s happening in the valley when combined with his look at what’s happening underground.

“The groundwater is there, year after year, decade after decade, millennia after millennium, snowmelt slowly working its way into the groundwater,” he said. “Atmospheric measurements really are the gold standard for understanding where, when, and how precipitation falls in a mountain system like this.”

He said SAIL’s findings will help understand what water will look like in the West for years to come.

“Water users and downstream managers will hopefully be able to use the information we’re learning here to really make tough decisions about the future of water use, not just in this basin, but in the rest of the United States,” Williams said. “These beautiful fields of wildflowers, those gorgeous green grasses, those streams full of trout, they’re not there without water.”

The equipment scattered in the Gothic and Crested Butte area is part of the US Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Facility (ARM). He started collecting data last September and will be in the valley until next June. The data collected by ARM is made freely available to researchers and institutions around the world.

“Once they got everything in place and the data started coming in, you know, I think I had a smile on my face for at least six months. It was absolutely amazing – I guess I always have a smile on my face,” Williams said with a smile.

Some of this ARM gear is inconspicuous, and some is hard to miss, like a large tethered balloon that hovers near Gothic Mountain in Gothic.

“It really is a great place to operate, but it would be great if it was a little less difficult to operate a balloon next to a giant mountain,” said Darielle Dexheimer, who works for Sandia National Laboratories, a Ministry of Energy laboratory.

Dexheimer supports the ARM research program, exploiting the balloon which helps perform atmospheric measurements.

“Sometimes it’s like dust or even sea salt from the ocean,” she said. “All of these aerosols impact climate differently because they emit light differently and allow water to condense differently.”

These findings, along with what Williams observed underground, could help researchers better understand what’s going on with climate and climate change, and that, according to Williams and Dexheimer, affects everyone.

“Climate change has an obvious impact on everyone,” Dexheimer said. “It impacts how we grow our food, and how we’re going to get enough water, and how we’re going to produce enough energy to keep us cool and warm.”

Williams has spent years studying this watershed that ultimately feeds the Colorado River, a major water source for the West.

“When you kind of look at the water bank account here in mountainous watersheds like this, we’re almost overdrawn,” he said. “The measurements we make are going to be really important to our collective understanding of the fragility of these mountain systems, especially as water becomes an increasingly scarce resource.”

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