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Water Loss from Snowdrifts Under Oasis Conditions


Water in the western United States is a limited and much contested resource. Since the predominant source of water in this region of the country is snowmelt, it may be possible to increase the water supply by modifying snow accumulation patterns. A large percentage of the precipitation that falls in the form of snow in windy areas such as southeastern Wyoming is lost to beneficial use by man since it sublimates when transported by wind (Tabler, 1973). Tabler (1973) has shown that properly designed snow fences are a viable watershed management tool and can be used to decrease the loss by sublimation, and consequently, might be utilized to increase the available water supply. Additionally, Tabler (1971) has determined the volume of water that can be stored behind a snow fence in the form of snow.

The utilization of snow fences and the resultant drifts for the storage of water must be shown to be economically feasible. Water from melting snow either contributes to the water supply as runoff in streams or infiltration to groundwater or is lost to the atmosphere through evaporation and sublimation. In order to determine the quantity of increased water, it is necessary to know the amount of water that is lost from the drift due to evaporation and sublimation (Rechard and Raffelson, 1973). By quantifying the evapo-sublimative losses and subtracting these losses from the water equivalent of a snowdrift at maximum accumulation, it should be possible to determine the resultant increase in water supply that would be available for beneficial purposes.

Because the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, has an ongoing study of the utilization of snow fences for snow storage on watersheds in the Pole Mountain area of southeastern Wyoming, this region was selected for the present study. Snow accumulation in unforested areas on Pole Mountain occurs only in topographic depressions, in the lee of scattered rocks and trees, and behind snow fences due to the relocation of snowfall by the persistent winds that arise in this area. The remaining ground is without snow cover most of the winter, especially during the drift ablation season, thereby isolating a drift behind a snow fence and creating an oasis effect.

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