In the Winter 2011 Patagonia catalog, Amy Irvine McHarg writes:
The sky is falling. Particle by red, raw particle. And it’s falling on some of the world’s best snow.
Dust from the deserts of the American Southwest – Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin and Chihuahuan – is getting scooped up in spring gales charging fresh off the Pacific. The airborne grit gets hurled across the western states before it is plastered onto the gleaming white snowfields of southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Home to the sweet and steep slopes of Telluride. To the frozen, front-pointable waterfalls of Ouray. To bluegrass fests, meadows of mushrooms, cannabis cafés and robust herds of elk. The effect is dizzying. Because these mountains, a rugged and rarified range where 14,000-foot, incisor-like peaks gnaw at an endless, crystalline sky, loom so large. On the horizon. In the psyche. To see iconic monoliths like the San Juans in such an altered state of color is sort of like having seen Marilyn Monroe after she had dipped her head in a bowl of henna…
…But there’s more to this story than the fate of one’s skis. Like asphalt on a hot summer’s day, the darkened snowfields absorb rather than reflect the sun’s rays. This means that a single dust storm can melt the snowpack weeks ahead of schedule. Down below, in the flatlands, the runoff runs so high and fast that there’s no way to store it. By midsummer, reservoirs get tapped hard. Crops, wildlands and lawns are left wanting. An annual loss like this can total over 35 billion cubic feet – water that would supply Denver for three years.
That’s a lot of snowflakes. And in terms of its effect, what happens in Colorado definitely does not stay in Colorado. When San Juan snowflakes melt, they trickle their way into important rivers: The San Miguel, known for its angling holes full of wily native trout. The Dolores, where bighorn sheep have successfully been restored to narrow sandstone cliff bands above the water. And the San Juan, which borders Navajo Lands and harbors on its shores some of the world’s densest clusters of prehistoric art and ruins. All three rivers eventually merge with the Colorado River, one of the West’s most vital waterways, which provides power and water for Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. About 30 million people (and counting) rely on this watershed alone. Of the 5 trillion gallons the river provides, those western states manage to use every drop, which means they cannot afford to miss even one bucket full of San Juan runoff.