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News Release

NRCS Seeking Cooperators for Snow Survey Program

Snow Survey and Water Forecasting Logo

Contact: Petra Barnes
NRCS State Public Information Officer
Office Number: 720-544-2808
Fax Number: 720-544-2965
E-Mail:
Petra.Barnes@co.usda.gov

Denver, CO – The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Colorado is currently working with cooperators who have pledged their assistance to help measure manual snow survey courses.  “We are thrilled with the offers of assistance we have received from natural resource partners and snow survey data users,” say Phyllis Ann Philipps, NRCS State Conservationist, Denver.  Anyone or any entity interested in assisting with manual snow course data collection should contact Mage Hultstrand at Mage.Hultstrand@co.usda.gov or by calling 720-544-2855.   As NRCS confirms interested cooperators, training and equipment will be provided and stakeholders will be regularly updated.

“Within the past few months budgetary constraints required us to take an introspective look at some of the operations within our snow survey and water supply forecasting program,” Philipps goes on to say.  “We identified streamlining opportunities that would increase the efficiency of the program as it relates to our mission.”

The purpose of NRCS’ snow survey program is to provide western states and Alaska with information on future water supplies.  Trained personnel collect and NRCS staff analyze snowpack depth and water equivalent data at nearly 1000 manual snow courses in the US and Canada including 102 sites in Colorado.  NRCS also collects data using SNOpack TELemetry (SNOTEL) technology which is an automated system that uses meteorburst communications to relay information about the depth and water content of the snowpack, precipitation, and air temperatures to a central computer facility.  Nearly 40% of the manual snow courses are currently measured by cooperators who assist in data collection.  Personnel from the National Park Service, Denver Water, Division of Water Resources, and the University of Colorado, along with other entities currently assist with data collection.

Support for the program resulted in an 8% increase in funding over our 2013 levels.  Nationwide the increase brought the total to $9.3 M.   This is good news for FY 2014 but with ever looming budget concerns, NRCS must be proactive in reducing costs so they can withstand any potential future budget cuts.  “Ideally, strong fiscal support for the program will deter any additional budget cuts; however we need to be proactive.  Working cooperatively, and by reducing costs further by increasing our cooperator network, we hope to be able to continue the manual snow course data collection for those courses we no longer use in our water supply forecasting system” Philipps further states.

Currently 47 of the 102 manual snow course sites are not being used by NRCS in their water supply forecasting.  However, these sites are significant to many other entities who want to see continued data collection. Some of these sites, operating since the 1930s, provide some of the longest uninterrupted snow data collected anywhere in the United States.  

“We appreciate the many entities who stepped up to offer assistance in data collection on these sites,” said Philipps.  “We are hoping that by October 1, 2014 we will have cooperators agreeing to cover all of the 47 manual snow course sites.  Even if we reach 50% that will help drive our costs down to a reasonable number that will allow us to withstand any additional budget cuts. It is important to note that while we will continue the 47 manual snow course sites this fiscal year, there are still a few sites that will be closed.  These closures are not due to budget cuts and are a part of the normal operating procedures of the Snow Survey Program.”

The snow survey program’s approach historically has been to replace manual snow courses with upgraded SNOTEL technology.  NRCS began this process in the late 1970’s when the SNOTEL network was born. The manual sites were initially prioritized internally by determining which ones provided the information needed to help reach the organization’s mission.  When a manual site was chosen to be upgraded NRCS then installed a SNOTEL site alongside the snow course and collected data from them both for some 10 years.  The maintenance of both methods of data collection helps ensure the consistency and accuracy of the information and when the science indicates the duplicative efforts are no longer warranted, the snow course is discontinued.  NRCS is able to provide automated, near real time data to water users by upgrading snow courses to SNOTEL sites as well as reduce the risks associated with requiring personnel to travel in hazardous conditions to collect this important data.

There have been concerns related to the accuracy of the SNOTEL sites and that maintenance issues can cause anomalies in the data.  NRCS tracks and monitors SNOTEL information on a daily basis.  The data received is so timely that the agency can immediately identify false readings through inconsistencies.  NRCS personnel also visit each SNOTEL site annually to calibrate and perform general maintenance on the electronic sensors and then compare the SNOTEL data with the information collected manually.  The quality from both methods is vital for NRCS in its efforts to achieve its mission.

“The Snow Program has been a vital part of helping manage the country’s water supplies since the early 1900’s,” states Philipps.  “Working cooperatively, we hope our data collection efforts will continue uninterrupted for many years to come”

For additional information about the NRCS Snow Survey Program please visit:  http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/