The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) installs, operates and maintains an extensive, automated system call SNOTEL (short for Snow Telemetry). SNOTEL is designed to collect snowpack and related climatic data in the Western U.S. and Alaska. In 1935, NRCS, then the Soil Conservation Service, established a formal cooperative Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting (SSWSF) Program to conduct snow surveys and develop accurate and reliable water supply forecasts. The Program operates under technical guidance from the NRCS National Water and Climate Center (NWCC).
With the majority of the water supply in the West arriving in the form of snow, data on snowpack provide critical information to decision makers and water managers. SNOTEL provides a reliable, cost effective way to collect snowpack and other meteorological data needed to produce water supply forecasts and support the resource management activities of NRCS and others.
The SSWSF Program has grown into a network of 1,185 manually-measured snow courses and 858 automated SNOTEL stations in 13 Western states, including Alaska. The Program provides streamflow forecasts at 673 stream gages in the West. The data, as well as related reports, are made available — in near real-time for SNOTEL sites — to private industry; Federal, State and local government entities; and to private citizens through an extensive Internet.
The modern SNOTEL network also provides data for climate studies, air and water quality investigations, climate change and endangered species habitat analysis. The high-elevation watershed locations, broad coverage and real-time operation of the network provide important data to researchers, river and reservoir managers, emergency managers, recreation managers and power generation companies.