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Water 2012: Snow survey and forecasting program described

Posted: Wednesday, Nov 21st, 2012

This is a SNOTEL site installation in 2010 called Black Mountain in the Cache La Poudre Watershed. The retired NRCS Assistant Snow Supervisor, Chris Pacheco, gave CWCB staff member Joe Busto moose antlers for good measure.

This is the 47th in a weekly series celebrating Colorado Water 2012.




VALLEY — The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) installs, operates, and maintains an extensive, automated system to collect snowpack and related climatic data in the Western United States called SNOTEL (for SNOwpack TELemetry.)

The system evolved from NRCS’s Congressional mandate in the mid-1930’s “to measure snowpack in the mountains of the West and forecast the water supply.” The programs began with manual measurements of snow courses; since 1980, SNOTEL has reliably and efficiently collected the data needed to produce water supply forecasts and support resource management activities.

Climate studies, air and water quality investigations, and resource management concerns are all served by the modern SNOTEL network. It may also be the best way to track changing climate over time. The high-elevation locations and broad network of the sites provide data analysis opportunities to researchers, water managers, and emergency managers for natural disasters such as floods.

SNOTEL uses meteor burst communications technology to collect and communicate data in near-real-time. Radio signals are reflected at a steep angle off the ever present band of ionized meteorites existing from about 50 to 75 miles above the earth. Satellites are not involved as the NRCS operates and controls the entire communication system.

There are over 830 SNOTEL sites in 11 western states including Alaska. There are 113 SNOTEL sites in Colorado and the last 20 were installed from 2004 to 2012 as part of a local, state and federal partnership spearheaded by the CWCB.

Water users in the Rio GrandeRiver basin were the first to take advantage of this partnership. The Cochetopa SNOTEL site, installed in 2004, near the top of Cochetopa Pass divides the Rio Grande and Gunnison basins. Equipment costs were funded by the CWCB and the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. This site automated a manually measured snow course that had been measured since 1949. The site measures snow water equivalent, cumulative precipitation, snow depth and air temperature (observed as well as daily maximums, minimums and averages). The NRCS funded and installed soil moisture and temperature sensors at 2”, 8” and 20” depths in 2009.

The second new SNOTEL site installed through this program was the Grayback SNOTEL installed in 2004 south of Del Norte at an elevation of 11,620 feet in the Rio Grande basin. Equipment costs for this site were funded by the CWCB, Rio Grande WCD, and Conejos WCD. This site automated a site manually measured since 1967.

SNOTEL data is invaluable information to water administration by the Division of Water Resources. It is the data used by the National Water and Climate Center (NWCC) and NOAA’s River Forecasting Centers to develop water supply forecasts.

Currently this SNOTEL grants program and partnership is on hold. The NRCS guidance of field staff per SNOTEL site has been exceeded. The SNOTEL grants program was a successful local, state, federal partnership and a popular small CWCB grants program. In order to resume this program and add new sites to fill in hydrologic data gaps additional support will be needed from all levels of the partnership.

For more information on SNOTEL, please visit the CWCB website at www.cwcb.state.co.us. For more information on Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please visit www.rgwcei.org or www.water2012.org.

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