How big are the discrepancies with snowpack-measuring tech? — The Montrose Press #snowpack #runoff

San Juan Mountains March, 2016 photo credit Greg Hobbs.

From The Montrose Press (Michael Cox):

The primary tool currently in use to measure snowpack in the Western United States is SNOTEL. We all rely on the SNOTEL website to see what’s happening during winter in the Rockies. But, you may be surprised to learn that the SNOTEL (SNOw TELemetry) has been missing the mark in its automated reading of snow depth in the Western US. How do we know that? Because, there is a new tool – actually an old one, repurposed – that could enhance greatly the accuracy of the 732 SNOTEL stations currently being used for the critical purpose of measuring snowpack in the mountains to help water managers forecast the potential runoff.

The solo SNOTEL system was as good as it got for 50 years when it came to measuring snow in the mountains. The system of sensors that measure snow depth and the amount of water contained in the snow was put into use back in the 1970s. It has not been updated since then, although some stations were added in the 1980s. SNOTEL measures two primary parameters, snow depth and density. Density tells us how much water is in the snow. It does this by sensing the weight of the snow on something called a snow pillow. The pillow is about eight feet square and as the snow builds up, it gets weighed. That number and the depth at the station are reported to the system as what we call the snowpack.

SNOTEL actually functions pretty well up to a point. The biggest drawback with it is the minuscule sampling of a vast area of snow production. The 732 stations are spread out through the mountain snow regions of all the Western states, including Alaska. That area is 1.76 million square miles, of which about a third is mountainous and has snow pack. That means there is a SNOTEL station for every 800 square miles of mountain terrain. Some of the stations are not as accurate as they need to be because of location. Some terrain, where extraordinary snow accumulation occurs, such as the bottom of an avalanche chute, never get measured because they are below the altitude level where SNOTEL stations are located. The avalanche-prone San Juans may have much more snow than we ever knew.

Given the increasingly critical nature of determining even short term snow inventories, people like John Lhotak, an operations hydrologist with the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, told a press meeting, “SNOTEL is the best network we have, but there are definitely shortcomings.”

Enter LIDAR. LIDAR is one of those pseudo-acronym things that the lab guys and bureaucrats love. This one stands for Light Detection and Ranging.

This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Quite simply, if you flew over the mountains without snow on them and determined the height (compared to sea level), and then flew over and scanned them when the snow is in place, you would simply deduct the original snow-less height from the snow packed image and “voila!!!” you get the snow depth of the whole mountain almost to within centimeters.

Sounds simple enough, but the data crunching is mind numbing. All the data points from the ground-only image must be overlaid with the image taken with snow on the ground. The measurement points are chosen and then comes all the subtraction and interpolation. The people like Jeffrey Deems at the National Snow and Ice Center and Sam Tyler at Utah State University (and their teams) have developed the computer tools to breakdown the gigabytes of data collected to simple usable terms.

The whole concept was first tested in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains eight years ago. The dry model of the mountains was made by flying at 20,000 feet in a straight back-and-forth pattern. After some storms passed the location, the team went back and flew the same pattern at the same altitude. The resulting 3D images were a precise measurement of the snow on the ground. Tyler’s team also did a test of the system near Logan, Utah, at about 8,000 feet…

The Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) folks tell us, “We see it as moving from a sparse-point base network (with SNOTEL) to a system that can map the entire snow pack in a river basin,” Jeffrey Deems said, “It is really an enabling technology.”

In 2013 the ASO tested the system on selected sections of the Front Range, Gunnison Basin, Rio Grande Basin, and Uncompahgre watershed. Deems said, regarding the SNOTEL numbers, “We were missing a lot of the picture. We need to fix that.”

What the tests revealed was that in the Rio Grande Basin, for example, the forecasts were way off, reporting as much as 50% less snow and water than what was actually on the ground. That makes accurate forecasts and water use management for that basin impossible…

But the bean counters aren’t so sure. First of all, flying several thousand miles back and forth over the Colorado peaks costs a lot of money. The tab for flying for the new imagery on a regular basis could cost $400,000 a year or more, according to Frank Kugel, director of the Southwest Water Conservation District. Is the return on investment really there?

SNOTEL Site via the Natural Resources Conservation Service

Also, everyone in the water biz seems to agree that we will still need SNOTEL. It is currently the only tool for proofing the accuracy of the LIDAR images and vice versa. It is also the best tool for the density issue. For the time being, people like Deems think using SNOTEL in tandem with LIDAR is the right way to get the best measurements. Rather than replacing SNOTEL, Deems would opt for even more SNOTEL stations…

Deems said [February 6, 2020] that the cost of LIDAR seems justified when you consider the cost of a bad forecast. It is no secret that the low estimate on the Rio Grande in 2013 translated into millions of dollars of water misused after the forecast. Making the investment available for better measurements seems like a no brainer…

Meanwhile, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has already decided to invest $250K in 2021 for flights to measure the Gunnison Basin, of which the Uncompahgre River is a part.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

First steps taken in developing Cow Creek pipeline and reservoir — the Watch

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

From the Watch (Tanya Ishikawa):

Ouray County is hoping to develop new and existing water rights on a major tributary of the Uncompahgre River, so water can be stored in a proposed reservoir and transported through a ditch or pipeline for temporary storage in Ridgway Reservoir. The county partnered with the Ouray County Water Users Association, a group representing ranchers with water rights, and Tri-County Water Conservancy District, the operator of Ridgway Reservoir and Dam, to apply for new and augmented water rights Dec. 30, 2019.

The three partners are jointly seeking the right to divert surface water from Cow Creek up to 20 cubic feet per second and store 25,349.15 acre feet, which is equal to 8.26 billion gallons, in a yet-to-be-built reservoir. The water rights application also requested the right to exchange up to 30 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek for water from other locations within Tri-County’s water rights holdings around Ouray County.

The water rights application was made after the completion of a water supply study commissioned by the Ouray County Stream Management & Planning Steering Committee, a group including the three partners and other local stakeholders that was organized as an effort to understand local water supply conditions after the droughts of 2012 and 2018.

“Our challenge is that during dry years the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association with its members’ senior rights puts a call on water from the Uncompahgre River (UVWUA), which means a lot of our users in Ouray County don’t have the water they need. This water rights application is essentially an augmentation plan, to alleviate the results of a call from UVWUA. It would help us add some water supplies where we don’t have them by retiming flows and releases, moving water and storing it in years when we have lots of water, and using it in years without water,” said Marti Whitmore, attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association, who was formerly the attorney for the county and has long been involved in water rights law.

The plan is to take water from Cow Creek without impacting the water that belongs to current water rights holders. Beyond that basic premise, much about the proposed projects is yet to be determined. The exact location of the pipeline or ditch, as well as the design and management of the reservoir, still need to be researched and negotiated with various stakeholders, including private and public property owners.

The main use for the water rights would be to supplement irrigation of 100,300 acres of mostly hay pastures, but the water rights application also lists other prior uses as domestic, municipal, industrial and flood control, and new uses as storage, flow stabilization, augmentation, exchange, aquifer recharge, reuse, commercial, piscatorial, streamflow enhancement, aquatic life, and hydropower generation and augmentation.

The water storage is a right owned by Tri-County, which was approved sometime in the 1950s as Ram’s Horn Reservoir, and decreed to be located in the vicinity of Ramshorn Gulch and Ramshorn Ridge northwest of Courthouse Mountain in the Cimarron Range. The Ridgway Reservoir was selected as the preferred alternative, and the smaller reservoir was never developed.

The proposed reservoir is on Uncompahgre National Forest land, but not within the wilderness area. Though on public land, the reservoir would not be publicly accessible for any uses such as recreation due to a stipulation made during a previous water rights case about the project. The pipeline or ditch would be located somewhere north of the reservoir, connecting flow from a point on Cow Creek to the Ridgway Reservoir to the west.

The cost and funding for the projects had not been determined yet, Whitmore said.

While no timeline has been set for the projects, the partners hope to have the water rights application successfully completed in 2020, after which other steps in the process from design to funding and federal permitting will begin, she added…

Ken Lipton has been a member of the Ouray County Stream Management and Planning Steering Committee, as well as a local rancher and former board member of the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit with a purpose of protecting the watershed in the county.

“The projects are necessary to prevent total loss of irrigation and stock water during extreme drought,” he said. “The bottom line is a reduced chance that there will be calls on our ditches during extreme droughts. However, I don’t think this will totally guarantee that no calls will occur.”

The #UncompahgreRiver Watershed in Ouray County The Basics & A Little Bit More — Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership

From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership

The Uncompahgre River Watershed in Ouray County is a first-of-its-kind publication that provides answers about water quality, supply and other features of the Uncompahgre River, its tributaries and the water sources in Ouray County. Just published by the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission of protecting and improving watershed resources, the booklet is available for free online ( and soon at public facilities and businesses around Ridgway and Ouray.

To determine the most valuable content to include in the compact booklet, UWP gathered input from around the county through various stakeholder outreach activities for many months in 2019. In February, UWP representatives will be presenting the watershed booklet at meetings of the Ouray City Council, Ouray County Board of Commissioners and Ridgway Town Council, and delivering copies to businesses, schools, libraries and other locations with an interest in sharing the useful information with their patrons.

“I know it was a lengthy production process and carefully written project after many months of research. Both my husband and I read it and found the information useful and interesting,” said Sue Hillhouse, a committee member for the Ouray County Community Fund, which provided the primary funding for the booklet. “We are proud to have been a part in making this possible. We look forward to its distribution and use.”

UWP used information garnered from its first six years of work on researching, monitoring, analyzing, and reporting on watershed conditions to produce the guide. The nonprofit produced a watershed plan in 2013, with 143 pages of geography, history, geology, data, maps, and other detailed information. Since then, UWP volunteers have taken water samples around the watershed for various projects, including the Colorado River Watch, a citizen scientist program collecting monthly samples at several sites coordinated through Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

UWP also pulled information from its various public meetings and collaborative projects, such as three mine remediation projects completed in 2017. The partnership is preparing to participate in two additional mine remediation projects in 2020 and 2021, the Governor Basin Restoration Project and a restoration project at the historic Atlas Mill that adds to work done previously. Both projects are identified on the centerfold map in the new watershed booklet.

“I’m thrilled with what our little nonprofit and our partners have accomplished. I’m most excited about the progress made towards cleaning up Governor Basin. In 2017, all we knew was that Governor Basin had very poor water quality and large mine waste piles. To make the project a reality, we’ve dug through heaps of information to better understand everything from land ownership to sediment chemistry, and together with our partners, secured more than $220,000 in commitments to restore that sensitive, high alpine area,” said UWP Technical Coordinator Ashley Bembenek in her message in the nonprofit’s annual report (available at

To help the public better understand the legacy of abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains and their impact on the watershed, UWP is organizing its annual Winter Tour of the Red Mountain Mining District, a snowshoe or Nordic ski trip to historic sites including the Yankee Girl Mine. The tour will be guided by Ouray County Historical Society Curator and author Don Paulson. The popular tour is already fully reserved with a waiting list started. However, a second snowshoe and skiing tour has been scheduled for March 7 that still has openings. On that date, wildlife biologist Steve Boyle will guide a group from Ironton Park on Red Mountain Pass to discover animal tracks and winter wildlife.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

At 25 years old, Ouray’s ice festival continues to foster — and anchor — the winter sport’s rise — The #Colorado Sun

Ari Schneider ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado. Julia McGonigle [CC BY-SA 4.0 (

From The Colorado Sun (William Woody):

If the passion of ice climbing lies in the ascent, then Ouray has succeeded in fostering the rise of this winter sport. Climbers and spectators from around the world will celebrate the 25th Ouray Ice Festival, Jan. 23-26.

What started out as a few rowdy locals climbing frozen leaks from an old water pipeline has turned into a world-class ice climbing destination…

About a quarter-mile south of downtown, the Ouray Ice Park spans the Uncompahgre Gorge. Combined with the Uncompahgre River below, the box canyon forms a dramatic backdrop that is spectacular and functional for adventurers picking their way up fangs of ice using axes and wearing boots fitted with spikes on the toes.

OURAY — At the bottom of a cold crevasse in the Uncompahgre Gorge, where sunlight reaches but only a few minutes a day, the climb to the surface begins.

The darkness is broken with the clicking echoes of steel penetrating ice. Slowly a small figure emerges on the icy wall, tethered by a rope.

If the passion of ice climbing lies in the ascent, then Ouray has succeeded in fostering the rise of this winter sport. Climbers and spectators from around the world will celebrate the 25th Ouray Ice Festival, Jan. 23-26.

What started out as a few rowdy locals climbing frozen leaks from an old water pipeline has turned into a world-class ice climbing destination.

During the ice festival, all of the hotel rooms in Ouray are booked, restaurants are packed, and a slew of foreign languages can be heard around town. Ouray’s population of just over 1,000 residents triples in size.

About a quarter-mile south of downtown, the Ouray Ice Park spans the Uncompahgre Gorge. Combined with the Uncompahgre River below, the box canyon forms a dramatic backdrop that is spectacular and functional for adventurers picking their way up fangs of ice using axes and wearing boots fitted with spikes on the toes.

Climbers work their way up and down columns of ice in Box Canyon on a northern section of the Ouray Ice Park Jan. 5, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
The park uses about 7,500 feet of irrigation pipe to drip and spray more than 200,000 gallons of spring water from nozzles, usually starting just after Thanksgiving. The effect is a blue, man-made icescape.

Temperature is everything, as the freezing process begins in late fall. Ice farmers try to get the park open after Thanksgiving, yet unpredictable temperatures can keep climbers off the ice for days and even weeks…

Located at 7,792 feet, Ouray historically is a mining town. The Uncompahgre River that runs through it can have unique colorations due to heavy mineral influences from the San Juan Mountains. The minerals, combined with sediment from the constantly eroding landscapes, is not a conducive mix for successful ice climbing.

In those early years of the festival, the ice, heavy with minerals and sediment, would not freeze well. The ice would become soft, melt quickly and break easily, creating “gross looking climbs,” Chehayl said. Worse, it could be dangerous for climbers.

The early ice farming system rough, Whitt remembers.

The park had to move from the old water supply to a reservoir that supplies the City of Ouray’s potable water. Now, water from the city’s reservoir, through the farming system, makes hardened blue ice on a massive scale.

“Compared to the orange water, the water now is eons better. Now we have that perfect blue ice,” Whitt said.

The City of Ouray is partnered with the ice park, whose board of directors and Jacobson lease part of the property to the city for $1 per year. In 2012, 24 acres of the park was transferred to the City of Ouray from the U.S. Forest Service, which led to more improvements and a sense of permanency…

Chehayl said accessibility makes the Ouray Ice Park a success. Located just off U.S. 550, the park is walking distance from a parking lot. Multiple viewing platforms have been built and the water-delivery infrastructure has improved. This has helped grow the popularity of the ice park.

Chehayl expects the annual elite climbing competition, scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, to be one of the best ever, thanks to the 25-year milestone. Whitt is one of the judges.

Shavano Conservation District: The past and the present — The Montrose Press

Photo credit: Shavano Conservation District

Here’s a report from Michael Cox that’s running in The Montrose Press:

Prior to the Great World War (great only signifying size and intensity), one of the most productive pieces of land on the Western Slope of Colorado was regularly converted to a destructive river of Spring snow or Summer storm runoff from the Uncompahgre Plateau.

The Shavano (shav-a-no) Valley was named for a Ute Chief, and was either visited or inhabited by native peoples as early as 3,000 years ago. The Ute’s came about a thousand years ago. It was fine winter ground and in spring and summer the grass was lush, affording excellent feed for the tribe’s livestock.

American settlers came in the late 1800s and found the Valley to have the most fertile and easy-to-till soil in the area. There was also a bit of water from an artisian spring that feed a meandering creek. There is an excellent explanation for how the soil developed in the valley. In all probability, it was those regular floods that swept from the plateau and covered much of the Valley, at various times of the year, in water. Along with the water, the floods were depositing a new layer of silt to the already deep soil.

But enough is enough already. By the late 1930s and early 1940s the farmers in the Valley grew weary of rebuilding and reclaiming after the floods. The damage to their infrastructure was immense and included dead livestock, ruined roads, and lost homes. The locals tried some small diversions, dykes, and flood ways, which had only minimal effect. The task was tantamount to parting the sea, but Moses and his stick were nowhere nearby. Enter the Shavano Conservation District, a cooperative of farms and ranches joining together and forming the district with the idea of petitioning the Bureau of Reclamation to help put up some defenses against the floods.

“The farmers had figured out that they needed some serious diversion dams along the west side of the Valley,” says Mendy Stewart the Shavano District chief of education and communication. “But they had neither the tools nor the money to build them.”

In May of 1937, the Shavano Soil Conservation District (SSCD) was organized under the Colorado Soil Conservation District Act. By October of 1941, the intensifying world war not withstanding, the district plan got the nod from 111 landowners, representing 20,200 acres in Montrose County.

Eventually, two other smaller districts, the Uncompahgre and the Cimarron, joined the Shavano group – soil conservation became a way of life. Now the district covers 1.2 million acres in Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison and Delta counties. The Delta County segment is a tiny bit of acreage on the Montrose/Delta County line. In 2002 the District dropped the use of the word “soil” from the name as did other such entities across the country…

Eventually, with grants from the Bureau of Reclamation and using the equipment and manpower pool of the district, three diversion dams were built to stop the wild flow off the plateau and divert it into ditches. This kept the flood waters off the farm land and out of the homes and barns in the Valley.

The largest of the three dams is at the south head of the Valley and involves an earthen structure measuring more than a half mile from one end to the other. The spillway and some of the dam are concrete reinforced. The runoff from the Plateau collects behind the dam. The flow out of the pool is controlled and put into ditches, such as the M&D canal below the dam…

According to Stewart the list of things the SCD is involved in includes irrigation water management, flood control, technical assistance with conservation efforts, youth and adult environmental education, and special projects such as the Western Colorado Soil Health Conference. The 2020 conference is scheduled for February 20 and 21 at the Delta Center for the Performing Arts.

Montrose: City approves more funds to help refurbish aging water tank as decades-old structure needs more work — The Montrose Press

Water tower in Orr, Minnesota.

From The Montrose Press (Andrew Kiser):

City Council voted unanimously Tuesday for $87,000 to Farnsworth Group for out-of-scope design services associated with the Sunset Mesa Tank Replacement project.

The below-ground water storage tank on Sunset Mesa has been around the 1960s. The storage was nearing the end of its usage as structural damage has caused the need for a new tank, located next to the Sunset Mesa Sports Complex baseball fields…

Throughout this design effort, numerous out-of-scope items were required for the completion of the project.

In the city council packet, the Farnsworth Group provided detailed information into what changes needed to occur for the water tank project.

The company listed more evaluations and extras services for increased interconnectivity, operational flexibility, operator access and safety needed to be included.

The structure also needed easier access in locating interconnecting piping in the lower level of pump station as that will provide more convenient expansion in the future and safer access for operations staff.

The design will also help staff as it’ll provide a mounted valve actuator system and housing which will be safer and more convenient access. This will require increases in building size and electrical and instrumentation system designs.

It will also complete several design iterations to efficiently connect inlets, outlets and drains of the proposed and future standpipes; as well as additional pumps and drains.

The Farnsworth Group also suggested the project should have designs for potential future additions of disinfection residual control system and forced air ventilation system for THM removal.

The company said the water tank should have added flow metering for both inflow and outflow pipes. Control descriptions should be prepared for the operation of the pumps and the standpipe inflow valve and valving operations, Farnsworth Group wrote.

Finally, the Farnsworth Group determined a splitting project into two separate bid packages while adding contractor coordinator requirements. The intent is to stay away from the general contractor price markup on the tank portion of the project.

Montrose: City hires engineering firm to study temp and flow of #UncompahgreRiver at the #wastewater plant — The Montrose Press

River Bottom Park Uncompahgre River. Photo credit: PhilipScheetzPhoto via the City of Montrose

From The Montrose Press (Andrew Kiser):

The city council voted unanimously Tuesday to hire Wright Water Engineers out of Durango $50,000 to design a data collection system.

The city is required to collect continuous temperature data on the Uncompahgre River upstream from the treatment plant found north of town, said City of Montrose utilities manager David Bries. This is needed as part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit — which was provided by the EPA — that the city recently received, he added.

Bries said that as part of a review, staffers discovered a lack of good, low-measurement near or at the river, as well as the treatment plant discharge location…

With this design in place, it’ll be the first time the city will collect data of the river flow and temperature of the discharge of the treatment plant, Bries said.

He also said this process will “capture that data” so decisions can be made for the river.

“We felt it was very valuable and imperative to have both flow relationships and temperature relationships,” Bries said. “We can make sure we are doing what is environmentally the right thing to do.”