Snowpack news (percent of normal): Snow surveys get funding

Statewide snowpack map percent of normal December 14, 2013 via the NRCS
Statewide snowpack map percent of normal December 14, 2013 via the NRCS

From the Pagosa Daily Post:

Mark Udall, who serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service announced today that they have found a way forward to maintain funding for the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program.

The program, which Udall has fought to fully fund, monitors snowpack in Colorado’s mountains and helps water managers forecast supply issues before they occur but was in danger of losing its funding due to looming budget cuts.

The plan, which repurposes money within the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s budget, only funds the snow monitoring program through August 2014. This temporary fix will ensure Colorado communities and water managers continue to receive the most accurate information available to make smart water decisions.

“Water is the lifeblood of the West, and our water managers need the best information on snowpack to keep our rivers, farms and cities strong. I am proud to have partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and thank it for working to protect the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program from looming budget cuts,” Udall said. “Although this is a major win for Colorado’s water managers, it is only a short-term solution. This additional funding will help keep all the monitoring sites open this winter and give stakeholders additional time to work on a long-term solution to sustain this important program.”

“While we received our statewide operational budget for the year, the allocation for the snow survey program was far less than what is needed to fully implement the program even with the streamlining efforts we are implementing within the state,” said Phyllis Ann Philipps, state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colorado. “Upon hearing about the 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 as the fix I’ve implemented is an interim one.”

Udall, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and Congressman Scott Tipton urged the Natural Resources Conservation Service in a recent letter to prioritize funding for its Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program. The letter cited the critical need in Colorado and across the Rocky Mountain West “to accurately measure snowpack in each basin, using both SNOTEL and manual snow course data.”

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):

The Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program, run by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, has kept records of snow depth in the West for a century. The snowpack estimates are crucial to reservoir managers, water conservation districts and farmers in Colorado, but after budget cuts NRCS had planned to eliminate 47 of its 72 snowpack measuring sites this winter.

On a regular basis, scientists trek to the sites, known as snow courses, where they collect snow and melt it, as a way to measure its water content and predict spring runoff levels.

On Friday, NRCS announced that it had found a way to fund the program through August 2014 by manipulating its annual budget, said spokeswoman Petra Barnes. The $78,000 being used to fund human-powered snowpack measuring will be taken from other NRCS programs, but officials haven’t yet decided which ones will take cuts, said Barnes.

Although the program will be funded through this winter, NRCS is still working on a plan to keep the snowpack measuring system afloat beyond next August. This fall, 100 stakeholders — water conservation districts and farmers among them — discussed ways to privately fund the program. The Northern Water Conservancy District, one member of the group, uses 23 of the NRCS snow measuring sites, four of which are on the elimination list.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A federal agency has redirected $78,000 in operational funds to pay for the short-term funding of 47 Colorado snow survey courses that had been threatened by budget cuts.

Phyllis Ann Philipps, state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colorado, announced the funding move today as a means of paying for the sites’ operation this winter. However, the agency says it will be working with more than 100 interested entities to try to find a permanent solution by next August.

It has been struggling with how to respond after suffering a 15 percent nationwide reduction in the agency’s Snow Survey Program for the 2013 fiscal year and facing further cuts due to sequestration. In October it raised the prospect of no longer operating 47 of 110 manual sites in the state, while continue to maintain automated sites.

That created an outcry from everyone from water managers to U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez. Water entities cite the value of many decades of data from many manual sites, the backup role they serve when automated sites have problems, and the importance site data plays in dam operations, flood forecasting and other water management.

In November, William Shoup, acting snow survey supervisor in Colorado, said that based on that feedback, the manual site measurements would be continued for at least one winter. He said he was making managerial changes to help make that fiscally possible, such as having Denver office staff visit some sites that field staff previously monitored.

The agency said in November that under that streamlined approach, the cost of continuing to monitor the previously threatened sites was $78,000.

Petra Barnes Walker, NRCS spokesperson in Colorado, said it’s not yet clear what other program will suffer as a result of the reallocated funding.

“We didn’t get any more money from Washington, D.C. The shortfall is still what it is,” she said.

“… We will have to make amends somewhere else. It will probably mean NRCS doing more with less, which we’ve always done.”

Udall said in a news release, “Although this is a major win for Colorado’s water managers, it is only a short-term solution. This additional funding will help keep all the monitoring sites open this winter and give stakeholders additional time to work on a long-term solution to sustain this important program.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado’s snow forecasting programs have been spared from the federal budget ax — at least for this year. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service announced Friday that they have found a way to fund snow forecasts through August 2014. The program, which Udall has fought to fully fund, monitors snowpack in Colorado’s mountains and helps water managers forecast supply issues before they occur but was in danger of losing its funding due to looming budget cuts.

The importance of the program has been underscored by state efforts to pick up the costs for snow course readings, which will reduce the federal costs.

“Water is the lifeblood of the West, and our water managers need the best information on snowpack to keep our rivers, farms and cities strong,” Udall said.

The allocation for NRCS programs in Colorado fell short of the amount needed to operate all Snotel sites and snow courses, said Phyllis Ann Philipps, state conservationist for the NRCS.

“Upon hearing about the potential cuts in snow survey courses, we were so pleased when so many stakeholders came together to help strategize a solution,” Philipps said. “We will need their continued input and support as the fix I’ve implemented is an interim one.”

Udall, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., urged the Natural Resources Conservation Service in a recent letter to prioritize funding for its Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program.

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