NRCS funding for snowpack measuring sites sill uncertain

Manual collection of snowpack data
Manual collection of snowpack data

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):

Since the early 1900s, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, has kept records of snow depth and weight to help predict spring runoff — estimates that are crucial to reservoir managers, water conservation districts and farmers across the state. But the budget for the NRCS Snow Survey Program in the West — which spans from New Mexico to Montana and from Colorado to California — has been cut by 15 percent since 2011, forcing the agency to cut staff.

Now, with more budget cuts looming in 2014, NRCS announced in late October that it might eliminate 47 of its 72 Colorado “snow course” sites, where scientists trek to measure snow, some of which have records dating back to 1936.

“The short of it is, the snow program as a whole has taken budget cuts over the past few years, and yeah, I mean those cuts are very real,” said Mage Hultstrand, an assistant snow survey supervisor. “I think this year we are talking another eight percent.”

The decision to abandon more than half of the snow measuring sites inspired a group of 100 water conservation districts and farmers across the state to save them, possibly by paying for monitoring themselves. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, one member of the group, uses 23 of the NRCS snow measuring sites, four of which are on the elimination list, said spokesman Brian Werner…

Since the 1930s, field officers have been measuring snow density across Colorado, and in the 1970s NRCS began the SNOTEL program, which uses equipment, not manpower, to measure snow. SNOTEL updates are hourly and available on the Internet; that crucial aspect of the program will not be cut, no matter what the 2014 federal budget dictates, said B.J. Shoup, a soil scientist with the program…

On Nov. 8, NRCS met with Northern Water and other groups that could be affected by the loss of snow measuring sites. For the briefing, NRCS crunched some numbers and reduced its staff of 42 snow surveyors to 19 so it can continue to monitor the 47 Colorado sites in jeopardy. For 2014, it expects its budget for measuring Colorado sites to be $78,741. The details of a potential arrangement with stakeholders to pay for surveying have not yet been worked out, Hultstrand said.

In the meantime, the Snow Survey Program has tried to trim the fat in other ways. The Colorado office, which monitors Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and southern Wyoming, has a staff of six, with two vacant positions, said Hultstrand. The Colorado program hopes that employees of other agencies — like Northern Water, Denver Water or the Colorado Division of Water Resources — can start monitoring the sites at their own cost.

“Those don’t cost us any money in salaries or training,” Hultstrand explained. “That’s kind of what we are hoping to push for our program to be more cooperative. We had some public meetings to discuss this — this data is very important to a lot of people.”

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