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About Snow Survey - Montana


The NRCS Montana Snow Survey Program, in collaboration with other western state NRCS snow survey programs and the NRCS National Water and Climate Center, form the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting (SSWSF) program. This cooperative effort is essential for understanding and managing water resources in the western United States.

The Vital Role of Mountain Snowpack

In the western United States, where arid conditions are common, it is estimated that upward of 80% of our water supply originates from the mountain snowpack. This snowpack acts as a natural reservoir, accumulating water during the winter and gradually releasing it during the spring and summer months. This delayed release of snowmelt into rivers and streams allows us to predict spring and summer streamflow.

Monitoring the Snowpack

The NRCS SSWSF program operates and utilizes two primary types of monitoring stations.

Snow Course: These historic monitoring sites, with data spanning over a century, consist of 5 or 10 sample points. At snow courses, specialized snow sampling equipment is used to manually measure snow depth and snow water equivalent or inches of water contained within the snowpack.

SNOTEL: In the mid-1970s, automated snow monitoring stations known as SNOTEL sites (Snow Telemetry) were introduced. Each SNOTEL site collects hydrologic and meteorological data, which at a minimum includes snow water equivalent, snow depth, precipitation, and air temperature. Some SNOTEL sites collect additional parameters including soil moisture, relative humidity, solar radiation, and wind speed. Data from SNOTEL sites are collected and transmitted hourly all year.

The NRCS SSWSF program has grown into a network comprising more than 900 manually measured snow courses and over 750 automated Snowpack Telemetry (SNOTEL) weather stations, spanning 12 western states, including Alaska.

Supporting Agriculture and More

NRCS SSWSF program hydrologists rely on snowpack data to estimate water supply. This information benefits various sectors during spring and the drier months of summer. Agriculture, which consumes a substantial portion of our total water resources, heavily relies on irrigation. Since the early 20th century, a network of reservoirs and canals has been established to store and distribute water for irrigation. The SSWSF program plays a vital role in forecasting water supply for the agricultural industry in the western United States. Other sectors the program supports are municipal water management, drought assessment, emergency preparedness, scientific research, and recreational activities.

A Cooperative Endeavor

The NRCS Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting program operates as a cooperative endeavor, collaborating with public and private entities that share an interest in ensuring consistent and reliable water supply forecasts. This cooperation ensures that water managers, cooperators, and the general public have access to the critical water supply information needed for effective decision-making and resource management.

A Brief History