Loss of manual snow course readings has water managers looking for replacement data

Slade Connell, left, and Richard Overholt of the City of Grand Junction take a core sample of the snow pack on Grand Mesa last winter during a monthly survey of the amount and moisture content of the snow. The city monitors 10 manual snow sites on Grand Mesa.

A late-September storm brings the fall’s first notable snow to Mesa Lakes and Grand Mesa. Snowfall on Grand Mesa is a major component of local water resources.

Water content in the snowpack can be measured manually using this 15-pound tube, part of the equipment historically carried by snow surveyors. Such equipment has been replaced with computers and satellite telemetry.

The history of water in western Colorado can be found in the well-kept records of manual snow surveys dating back to the 1930s.

At one time, well before satellites and computers, two-person teams of surveyors from the National Resource Conservation Service each month made multi-day trips into the snow-covered backcountry to record snow depth and water content.

Today, those wintry treks are more and more being abandoned, as satellite and computer technology make it possible for similar information to be collected at a remote Sno-tel (for SNOwpack TELemetry) site rarely visited by man.

In use since the late 1970s, that automated network, now numbering 838 stations in 13 states, sends information about snowpack and water density to the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore., for the center’s West-wide water supply forecasts.

Due to a series of budget cuts and increasing reliance on technology and outside agencies, the NRCS currently has only one manually surveyed site (called a “snow course”) on Grand Mesa, located near Mesa Lakes.

Records from that site, said local NRCS conservationist and snow surveyor Lenny Lang, go back as far as the early 1940s.

Now, the state NRCS office is considering abandoning the Mesa Lakes site despite its
70-year history of providing water insights.

“Our program is looking at ways to meet tighter and tighter budgets and snow courses are always on the table,” NRCS acting state conservationist Mage Hultstrand said in Golden. “The manual readings won’t be totally cut out, we still have a lot of folks who measure snow courses for us that we don’t pay for.”

“The main thing is our snow courses aren’t used in our (water supply) forecast equations,” Hultstrand said. “Forecasters get enough information from the Sno-Tel sites.” 

But there’s a caveat: these outside agencies, including the City of Grand Junction and the Ute Water Conservancy District as well as other local and federal agencies, often don’t always take their measurements in the same places as the NRCS.

This means the information collected lacks some direct validity with historical records.

“Those (manual) snow surveys provide more of an historical view of the variations in the snowpack than you get with the Snow-Tel sites, which only go back to the 1979,” said Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight. The snow courses are “not just another spot on the map.”

The eye into historical water data plays a role when water managers are trying to decide if today’s weather is a trend or merely an anomaly.

“Some of these sites go back 60 or 70 years, and to do away with that data stream is really sad to see,” said Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison Water Conservation District. “Especially if we are facing climate change, we want to have as much data as we can use.”

Kugel said that data also will be part of the input used by the state river basins as they develop their basin-wide water plans in response to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recent directive.

Steve Ryken, assistant general manger for Ute Water, said his agency mainly uses the automated sites for water data but still finds the manual snow courses valuable as a planning tool.

“I have NRCS flow records on the Colorado River and Plateau Creek that go back to 1937,” Ryken said. “We are such a junior water user (since Dec., 1964) I need something with history I can compare (today’s water data) to.”

Two meetings previously scheduled for later this month to discuss the future of the snow courses were canceled Tuesday after the partial government shutdown.

“It’s hard to think of a worse time to get rid of this long-term stream of information when you are trying to address something like this,” said Kugel, referring to long-term West-wide drought. He had planned on attending the Durango meeting to speak on behalf of retaining the manual courses.

“We’re facing a ‘new normal’ in water management and need all the data we can find,” he said.


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