Scene In Passing: Of snowpack & water worries circa 2050

A recent Nevada Appeal headline and article told a troublesome tale: “Historically Low,” the article was headed.

“Report: Sierra Nevada snowpack lowest in 500 years,” according to a sub-head. The lead paragraph of the article, datelined as out of Truckee, Calif., went this way: “Snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada in 2015 is at the lowest level in the past 500 years, according to a new report led by University of Arizona researchers.” Scary stuff. But hardly unexpected.

In a 2010 book published by Laurence C. Smith, professor of geography and of earth and space sciences at UCLA, the problem was part of the underpinning of his thesis regarding how the world would look and people would react by mid-century. That’s 35 years from now. It’s just four decades from when Smith, also vice chairman of UCLA’s Geography Department, published the book called: “The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Culture.”

Those four forces, he wrote, are demographics, human interface with natural resources, globalization, and climate change.

Whether you think climate change is real or so much Swiss cheese, some things are observable and not open to interpretation. As Smith wrote: “Quite simply, it is observed fact that human industrial activity is changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere such that its overall temperature must, on average, heat up. The power of greenhouse gases is simply beyond dispute.”

Smith said without greenhouses gases the world would be “an icebox, like the moon and Mars.” He said basically that’s because greenhouse gases let solar radiation in easily, but not out, “roughly analogous to how a closed-up car becomes hotter inside than out from sunlight passing through the window glass.” In the same 2010 book, Smith wrote elsewhere on the impact.

“Changing drought and flood statistics are not the only way that rising greenhouse gases harm our water supply,” Smith said. He said all reservoirs, holding tanks, ponds and other storage containers “are trifling compared to the capacity of snowpacks and glaciers.” He noted glaciers are receding and then got right down to snow’s 500-year nadir in the Sierra Nevada five years before it arrived.

He said the seasonal shift under way “portends big problems for the North American West and other places that rely on winter snowpack to sustain agriculture...” He wrote that California’s Central Valley, the largest ag producer in the nation, “depends heavily on Sierra snowmelt, for example.”

Northwestern Nevadans are on the other side, but if you ask, “so what,” you need to rethink your cavalier attitude. If Californians get less water from snowmelt, higher food price pressures will mount, those of us in the Eastern Sierra foothills will get even less runoff, and those will be just two obvious offshoots.

Ski resorts will battle to survive. Runoff in the Carson and Truckee rivers will suffer even more. Lake Tahoe, over the long term, will move from keep Tahoe Blue to keep Tahoe somehow. Groundwater supplies, the hidden yet important corollary to surface water supplies, won’t replenish sufficiently. Drought could move from a four-year cycle to a decade-long cycle, or worse. Wet periods still will come, but the crucial questions will be how soon and how often?

Government officials need to quit thinking short term on such problems. The world of 2050 is just a hop, skip and jump from the here and now.

John Barrette covers Carson City government and business. He can be reached at


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