Climate: Water

The Crown of the Continent sets the global gold standard for clean water. Scientists come from around the world to study our healthy, functioning rivers and streams. From the ski-able snowpack at Fernie and Whitefish winter resorts, to the irrigation ditches on the region’s farms, to the streams and lakes where we play and fish, water touches our lives every day. University of Montana forest ecologist Dr. Steve Running, who shared a Nobel peace prize for his climate-change work, notes that streams flowing from Montana’s Continental Divide provide up to 75 percent of the water for the broader region, and contribute critical water resources for millions of people, hundreds of miles downstream.

Dr. Stuart Rood, co-director of the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Water Research at the University of Lethbridge, has with other researchers documented the following throughout the region’s Rocky Mountains since 1950:

• Snowpack levels have declined 15-30 percent.

• Spring runoff peaks roughly one month earlier.

• More than 80 percent of streams have decreased summer flows, on average down by 31 percent.

Because climate impacts every part of our lives, these changes will have ripple effects throughout our economy, our natural surroundings and our way of life. Irrigators already are feeling the pinch, as are ranchers and recreationists. More and more often, ski resorts are abandoning their traditional Thanksgiving Day openers, along with early season revenues. Anglers struggle with less water and warmer water, and find streams closed on hot summer days when such conditions can lead to stressed and vulnerable fish.