NRCS manual snow survey funding dodges a bullet

Manual collection of snowpack data
Manual collection of snowpack data

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The Natural Resources Conservation Service says it has dropped consideration of reducing the number of Colorado snow survey sites this winter, an idea that had been driven by budget cuts. The idea had drawn criticism from water managers and from U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

Phyllis Ann Philipps, state conservationist in Colorado for the NRCS, told water interests in an Oct. 22 letter that it might be necessary to reduce the number of manual “snow course” measurement sites in the state, following a 15 percent reduction to the agency’s Snow Survey Program for the 2013 fiscal year and anticipated further budget restrictions due to sequestration. Automated sites using telemetry “will be maintained,” she said in the letter, which invited interested parties to an Oct. 28 public meeting on the issue.

“We’re going to continue the manual snow course measurements as recommended by the public forum,” William Shoup, acting snow survey supervisor in Colorado for the NRCS, said Tuesday.

He said the agency would detail its decision in another meeting Thursday.

Chris Treese, external affairs director for the Colorado River District, said that through congressional offices and other voices, “the message has been communicated and the NRCS and the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) are convinced that this isn’t the place that they need to cut.”

Udall spokesman Mike Saccone said Tuesday his office hadn’t been able to confirm the agency’s decision to back off the idea, but if it’s the case it’s welcome news. “Water is critically important to our water providers and certainly those managers on the Western Slope. … If true, this is a big victory for the Western Slope and the people of Colorado,” he said.

Udall, Bennet and Tipton jointly signed a letter to the Department of Agriculture Friday calling on the department and NRCS to make the manual sites a budget priority.

“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,” their letter said.

They said snowpack can vary widely from basin to basin, and accurate measurements in each basin using both automated and manual data are “essential for water districts and municipalities to meet the demands of competing users.”

They also said the automated sites “can often face mechanical failure mid-winter, leaving the manual snow courses as the only sources of reliable data to meet local demands and interstate compact deliveries.”

The program has 104 manual snow survey sites in Colorado. Treese said some sit alongside automated sites and are used to double-check the automated operations and adjust or maintain them as needed. Some manual sites have been used for many decades.

“We wouldn’t want to lose that longevity, that time series of information,” he said.

Treese said the snowpack data help water managers plan for spring runoff and have reservoirs release or hold on to water depending on anticipated inflow. It aids in fulfilling water rights obligations and in managing river levels for purposes such as flood avoidance and helping endangered fish.

Shoup said the reduction in manual sites never reached the point of being a proposal by the NRCS. It simply was brought forward for discussion given the budget situation and the fact that data from some of the manual sites isn’t being used in water supply forecasting by the agency’s National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore., he said.

But he agreed about the importance of the long-term, historical data being generated by sites that in some cases date back to the 1800s. Those sites provide important information pertaining long-term climate change and the runoff impacts of dust on snow, he said. “There’s just a lot of different historical records that we find are very important,” he said.

He said he’s found ways to continue data collection from all the sites for less money through changes in how the operation is managed. For example, staff working in data collection at the agency’s Denver office also will be deployed into the field for measurements at Front Range sites, rather than paying NRCS field staff for that work.

Shoup said that while all the manual measurements will continue this year, he can’t speak to future years because it all depends on how much funding NRCS gets from Congress.

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