Federal budget cuts threaten snowpack monitoring

FORT COLLINS — For the first time in nearly a century, several snowpack monitoring sites in Colorado’s mountains may be abandoned this winter due to federal budget cuts.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service announced in late October that it might eliminate 47 of its 72 Colorado “snow course” sites, where scientists trek to measure snow, The Coloradoan reported Wednesday.

Since the early 1900s, the NRCS has kept records of snow depth and weight to help predict spring runoff. The estimates are used by reservoir managers, water conservation districts and farmers across the state. The budget for the NRCS Snow Survey Program in the West — which spans from New Mexico to Montana and from Colorado to California — has been cut by 15 percent since 2011, forcing the agency to cut staff.

Some of the Colorado monitoring sites that could be closed have records dating back to 1936.

“The short of it is, the snow program as a whole has taken budget cuts over the past few years, and yeah, I mean those cuts are very real,” said Mage Hultstrand, an assistant snow survey supervisor. “I think this year we are talking another 8 percent.”

The decision to abandon more than half of the snow measuring sites inspired a group of 100 water conservation districts and farmers across the state to save them, possibly by paying for monitoring themselves. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, one member of the group, uses 23 of the NRCS snow measuring sites, four of which are on the elimination list, said spokesman Brian Werner.

“All four of those are on the Western Slope,” he said. “They are pretty critical for the forecast.”



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