Snow survey (SNOTEL) program future uncertain as funding declines, key positions remain unfilled

From the Northern Colorado Business Report (Steve Lynn):

Farmers, water managers, ditch-irrigation company representatives and local government officials rely on the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service program to forecast water supplies. The agriculture department, however, has proposed eliminating some sites where scientists manually measure snowpack in Colorado and throughout the West.

Because of looming budget cuts, the agriculture department is uncertain about how it can maintain the traditional, manual measurements that began in the late 1930s. The agency also has automated snow stations scattered throughout the West, including in the Larimer County high country.

“As a climatologist, our strengths reside in the quality of our long-term data for tracking variations and changes,” Colorado State University climatologist Nolan Doesken said. “We don’t want to see any of those long-term records interrupted.”

The manual measurements done by scientists cover more territory than the automated snowpack sites, giving scientists a better grasp of snowpack depth and water availability than if they relied only on the automated sites, he said.

“That really allows improving on the forecast of what the future water supply is going to be,” he said.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton entered the fray this week, urging the agriculture department to maintain the snowpack monitoring measurements.

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

State water providers, lawmakers and others have long pushed for more detailed snowpack and river-flow data in anticipation of population growth, increased demands and climate change. But now they’re fighting just to keep in place the data system they have. Because of budget cuts, the state’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has fewer dollars this year to devote to its Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program.

However, Colorado State Conservationist Phyllis Ann Philipps said she’s “actually optimistic” for the program this year, after a number of representatives from water providers, conservation districts and other operations across the state have stressed that they’ll provide whatever resources are needed — technical assistance, dollars, staff, all of the above — to make sure the data-collection system is fully functional this year.

“There’s no doubt we need more data than we have now,” said Brian Werner, a spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, which oversees operations of the region’s largest water-supply project, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project that provides water to about 640,000 acres of irrigated farmground and about 860,000 people in portions of eight counties. “To take a step in the other direction certainly isn’t the way we want to go.”

The snowpack program consists of automated “Snotel” measurement devices in the mountains, and also of manual snow readings done by NRCS staff. With the data collected, water officials each year estimate what river flows will be when snow melts in the spring, and also how much of that water will run off into the region’s reservoirs.

Based on those forecasts, farmers — who use about 85 percent of the state’s water — decide what crops they’ll plant and how much. Cities, too, decide whether they’ll have enough water, not only to meet their own needs, but also whether they’ll have enough water left over to lease to local farmers during the growing season.

In addition to providing water projections, some of the data-collection system dates back to the early 1900s, and continuing that historic data is critical, water officials say.

While important, the snowpack-measuring program’s future has been uncertain recently. Philipps explained that, with its budget this year, the NRCS’s automated Snotel system would still be up and running as normal, but 47 of the 104 sites where manual measurements are taken wouldn’t be operational. She added, though, that state water officials, experts, providers and others are doing what they can to prevent that from happening.

“If we can get all of the support we think is out there, we’re optimistic our data-collection system will be fully functional this year,” Phillips said Tuesday night.

She noted that a meeting will take place Thursday between NRCS staff and water officials from across Colorado. At that time, discussions will be had about what’s needed to keep the snowpack-data system fully functional this year.

She said further discussions will have to take place down the road about how the data-collection system will function beyond 2014.

This week, Colorado Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., joined the cause, writing a letter to U.S. officials, urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which oversees NRCS functions — to prioritize funding for snow forecasts.

Local farmers, too, are stressing the future of the program is critical for the future of farming.

“We make basically all of our decisions based on those numbers and those forecasts,” said Robert Sakata with Sakata Farms, which grows produce and other crops in Weld and surrounding counties. Sakata also sits on the board of directors for two irrigation ditches that provide water to farmers.

The difference in just a few hundred acre feet of water coming down the river can make a big difference in how farmers operate, Sakata and other farmers stressed. The accuracy of the forecasts needs to be precise, he continued, so opportunities aren’t wasted for farmers still in production, who already face future uncertainty when it comes to water supplies.

At the current rate, Colorado cities buying water from the state’s farmers to meet their needs is expected to dry up an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmground by 2050, according to a statewide water supply study, released in 2010.

“We have to make the most of everything,” Sakata said. “We need the data to do that.”

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