Water Resources

Rainbow over Quartz Lake, NPS photoSnowfield, NPS photoSwiftcurrent Creek, NPS photo, J. Giese

Water is abundant in the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem in the form of glaciers, snowfields, ice patches, lakes, streams, wetlands, and rivers. All of these features provide critical water resources for human, wildlife, and vegetation communities.

However, warmer and more variable winter and spring air temperatures have caused more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow and has led to earlier snowmelt. As this trend continues, loss of winter snowpack and glacial loss will greatly reduce the major source of groundwater recharge and summer runoff, resulting in a lowering of water levels in streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands during the growing season. As water levels are lowered, the amount of habitat in streams for invertebrates and fish will be reduced, and lower groundwater tables will alter the riparian vegetation communities. Without glacial melt water, summer water temperatures will rise and may cause the local extinction of temperature sensitive aquatic species. These alterations in temperature could lead to a disruption of the aquatic food chain, which may impact keystone aquatic species such as the native bull trout.

The effects will be felt in areas farther away from mountain landscapes as well. It is estimated that nearly 50% of the fresh water used by humans is sourced from mountains. As temperatures increase, and droughts become more frequent, the demands for agricultural and municipal water use are likely to increase, further reducing available water resources.