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Snowpack figures look promising

By Shanti Johnson
Staff Writer

During its rescheduled meeting on Feb. 17, the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) Board heard from Joe Crabb of the Division of Water Resources.

Crabb presented the regional snow report to the board with information gathered through the National Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) SNOTEL program.

SNOTEL is short for snow telemetry. Briefly defined in the dictionary, telemetry is “the science and technology of automatic measurement and transmission of data … from remote sources.”

SNOTEL is a program which collects data from sensors placed at key, hard-to-reach, snowpack and watershed sites all over the Western United States and Alaska. The sites are designed to operate unattended for over a year, running on solar-charged batteries.

According to the NRCS website, the purpose of the SNOTEL program is to “develop accurate and reliable water supply forecasts.”

In addition to providing water supply forecasts, SNOTEL data is used “for climate studies, air and water quality investigations, climate change and endangered species habitat analysis.”

The two SNOTEL sites closest to Archuleta County are the Upper San Juan site and the Wolf Creek Summit site. Both sites remain intact, even after last summer’s wildfires.

Using SNOTEL data, Crabb reported that snowpack was at 103 percent at the beginning of February.

District 7, which includes Archuleta County and the San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel rivers, was at 91 percent snowpack as of Feb. 18.

The neighboring Upper Rio Grande district is sitting at only 79 percent snowpack.

Figures for snowpack in the North Platt region were at 134 percent, which will likely have a positive impact on the lower half of the state.

While snowpack numbers look promising, Crabb noted that a true prediction of the water supply for the rest of the year will not be possible until the beginning of March.

Crabb stated that the weather in April will be the deciding factor for the water supply forecast for the rest of the summer months.

If temperatures are high in April, flash run offs will occur, drastically reducing the watershed supply.

Crabb equated the amount of water left after a hot April during a good snowpack year, to the amount of water left after a cold April during a 50 percent snowpack year.

Crabb also cautioned the board to remember that because the Wolf Creek Summit SNOTEL site sits on the Continental Divide, half of the water reported from the site will flow into the Rio Grande region.

Prompted by a question from board member Sue Walan, Crabb also noted that the area is lucky to have had such a wet August and September The precipitation received during those months saturated the ground and helped fill reservoirs thereby ensuring the area would not head into the winter months depleted.

SJWCD Attorney Kent Holsinger interjected at the end of the presentation saying that the NRCS is in the midst of budget cuts threatening the SNOTEL program.

Because the SJWCD, and many other water districts and organizations rely heavily on the forecast data for regional planning, Holsinger advised members of the board, and all concerned individuals, to write letters to their state and federal officials urging them to keep the funding intact for the SNOTEL program.

Crabb agreed and added that the areas of the SNOTEL program most at risk were in-field research projects and manual labor done to collect snow measurements.

In November 2013, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton expressed their concerns over the looming NRCS budget cuts.

The three elected officials joined together to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging the department to maintain funding for the critical SNOTEL program.

The letter stated that, “In the face of prolonged drought, significant population growth and climate change, NRCS’ snow program data provides vital information on precipitation and future water supplies essential for Colorado and the entire American West.”

The letter went on to say, “We hope the USDA and NRCS will prioritize manual snow course measurement sites as they manage their budget for FY14 …”

Phyllis Ann Philipps, state conservationist for the NRCS, responded to the letter from Udall, Bennet and Tipton by saying, “Their efforts helped foster the understanding about the importance of the snow survey program and the information derived from it.”

In response the letter and other parties’ expressed concerns, the NRCS reallocated funds in December 2013 to maintain 47 previously threatened, manually monitored snow survey sites. The funding will keep the sites running through the remainder of the winter.

Though the reallocation temporarily eases program concerns for 2014, the organization is still seeking a long-term solution.

Phillips stated, “Upon hearing about potential cuts in snow survey courses we were so pleased when so many stakeholders came together to help strategize a solution. We will need their continued input and support …”

The NRCS, as well as over 100 natural resource partners and stakeholders, will be asked to reconvene to help find a permanent resolution by August 2014.

The series of stakeholder and partner outreach sessions are anticipated to begin either later this month or in March, though no specific date has been announced.

Anyone interested in learning more about the NRCS or SNOTEL can find further information, along with real-time data posted about snowpack and water content, by visiting the NRCS website at www.wwc.nrcs.usda.gov.

shanti.johnson@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on February 20, 2014.