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Snowstorm melt provides a much-needed drink for parched aquifer and West Texas soil

Super Bowl Sunday provided many Lubbockites with the snow day they’d been waiting for all winter.
Brad Burt
Texas Tech Public Media
Super Bowl Sunday provided many Lubbockites with the snow day they’d been waiting for all winter.

Super Bowl Sunday provided many Lubbockites with the snow day they’d been waiting for all winter, covering the Hub City’s concrete canvas in white. As the week went on and the snow melted, streets turned soggy and dirt became slush.

While it can be easy to curse the cold and the mud, it’s important to realize the value this precipitation has to West Texas' most desperate resources.

The Ogallala Aquifer is the freshest source of groundwater in West Texas and supplies various cities and towns with their various water needs. The 2022 Texas State Water Supply Plan states that the aquifer is responsible for approximately 60% of the region’s water usage.

That same plan also states that, with the region's success in agriculture over the past century, the aquifer has been declining at an average rate of 2.5 feet every year since the 1930s.

Jason Coleman, general manager of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, says that with freezing temperatures, winter precipitation can penetrate the earth and replenish the water table without the obstacle of evaporation.

He added that only an abundance of rainfall at a time stands a chance of actually reaching and replenishing the aquifer, and much of the water is used by plants or animals on the ground.

Ken Rainwater of Texas Tech’s Water Resources Center, says that for water to make it to the aquifer, it must first get past 'the root zone.' That is much easier during these cold winter months with less plants in season, providing rainfall with a much smoother journey to the water table.

"So that means that winter precipitation, if we have dormant plants, water could go on by," Rainwater said. "That's typically from our larger events, big rainfall events, you know, a few to several inches in a day.”

Rainwater added that — even with the heaviest rainfall — it will still take years or even decades for that water to reach the water table.

Benefits to local agriculture

Last week’s snow brought slow benefits for the soil and plants as well.

“Well, if you asked me or any of the other soil scientists in the departments, there's a lot that we want people to know about the soil in Lubbock,” explained Lindsey Slaughter, a professor of soil microbial ecology and biochemistry in the Davis College at Texas Tech University.

Lubbock and West Texas soil is highly sensitive to moisture and the winter months offer a valuable source of precipitation through snow, Slaughter said.

Fast, heavy rainfall may not completely absorb into the soil, a gentle snowfall melts at a rate that allows the soil to better absorb at a gradual pace.

The moisture has more time to reach the deeper layers of clay and store itself under the top layers of soil allowing plant roots to grow down and access the water they need by pulling it up to the surface.

“You have to have things in place to be able to capture that snow,” Slaughter said. “The moisture does us no good if it all runs off into the road.”

The main issue with snowfall is having something to hold it in place. Grasses provide a continuous cover to hold the snow while allowing it to melt into the soil without blowing away.

Slaughter said this layer of snow helps to serve as an insulating blanket for the microbes that are hard at work decomposing what is left from last year's crop.

While the snow may not do much for the plants that are dormant during the winter, the precipitation gathered during these colder months can often make a difference in whether the next summer will be successful.

One of the best ways to utilize this resource, according to Slaughter, is taking advantage of these vertical grasses that allow the snow to melt down naturally into the soil.

“That's going to be the key to making the most effective use of the little snow that we do get in Lubbock,” Slaughter said.

Olivia O’Rand is a sophomore journalism and biology student at the Texas Tech Honors College. After discovering her love for nature at a young age, Olivia is focusing on environmental journalism and covering people who are passionate about their work in the outdoors.
Bishop Van Buren is a student reporter with KTTZ who hails from Houston but has developed a deep passion for local journalism since moving to Lubbock and becoming a Red Raider in 2020. Bishop enjoys reporting on sports, culture, and environmental issues.