As snow courses disappear, history goes with them

Lenny Lang has seen the manual reading of snowpacks across Grand Mesa shrink from a handful of sites requiring teams to spend frigid winter nights in remote cabins to just one site.

The only snow course left on this side of Grand Mesa is just off Colorado Highway 65 near Mesa Lakes, one very easy to access and popular among tourists.

“They only keep it around for the public because it’s easy to get to,” Lang said.

According to the National Resources Conservation Service, there are more than 1,800 snow courses across the West, but increasingly those sites are being abandoned in favor of technology.

Computers and satellite communication make gathering snowpack information much faster and with less effort with the 858 automated Sno-Tel (for SNOwpack TeLemetry) sites across the 13 Western states including Alaska.

Some of those Sno-Tel sites are located where manual snow courses were but many of these automated sites are situated where winter access was dangerous, near-impossible or both.

However, the 135 or so Sno-Tel sites across Colorado don’t answer all the questions water providers may have.

Several Sno-Tel sites on Grand Mesa are in the wrong drainages to be of direct use to the City of Grand Junction, which instead relies on monthly surveys by city employees.

Steve Brinkman, Water Services manager for the City of Grand Junction, said city employees monitor 10 snow courses on Grand Mesa.

“We use the (Sno-Tel) information to look what the snow is doing elsewhere (because) they aren’t in our watershed but a little further away,” Brinkman said. “I think Ute Water uses them more than we do.”

Those Sno-Tel site provide much of what Ute Water uses for its forecasts, said assistant general manager Steve Ryken.

“I use the Mesa Lakes site but the Park Reservoir site is our bread and butter,” Ryken said.

Still, he still finds the NRCS snow course information retains its value.

“I use it as planning tool, especially these last two years when we’ve had a severe drought” he said. “It’s in the top five since 1937 and the historical information is something I can compare (today’s data) to.”

Some people think manual snow readings might be more accurate than the automated system.

“I had a guy from Cedaredge who would call me up and tell me to go fix the Sno-Tel site (at Park Reservoir) because it was reading wrong,” Lang said. “I’d go up there and he was right but I couldn’t figure out how he knew.

“Finally I talked to him and he said he went up there every few weeks to measure the snow and he’d call me when the (automated) reading was wrong.”


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