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NRCS Snow Surveyor Collects Vital Water Data, Lives Dream Job

By Spencer Miller, NRCS
January 10, 2013

Snow surveyors approach SNOTEL site on Mount Hood


Snow survey team arrives by helicopter to repair site
Snow survey team arrives by helicopter to repair site.

Julie Koeberle’s job carries her over mountains by helicopter and horse, snowshoes and skis. She has encountered grizzly bears, avalanches and wolves and visited ridges that few people have seen. 

Koeberle is a hydrologist and snow surveyor for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and works on the agency’s snow survey team – a group of specially trained scientists who maintain snow gauges that help provide monthly water supply forecasts between January and June.

These forecasts serve as a vital planning tool for the region’s farmers, business owners and communities, especially in the wake of a prolonged drought still gripping much of the nation. The first of the year will be released next week.

With a master’s degree in snow hydrology from Colorado State University, Koeberle is one of 50 NRCS snow surveyors who maintain an intricate web of snow survey gauges in more than 850 remote locations in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. These gauges are automated snow telemetry equipment, or SNOTEL, and they allow NRCS to predict the amount of spring and summer snowmelt in twelve Western states – where 50 to 80 percent of all water used comes from snowmelt.

SNOTEL sites are installed off the beaten path to avoid disturbance. Snow surveyors routinely travel to locations unvisited by even the most adventurous hikers. Visits to SNOTEL sites occur mostly in the spring and summer, and the colder months are spent in the office, where the snow surveyors analyze and interpret data published in monthly reports.

Snow surveyors approach SNOTEL site on Mount Hood
Snow surveyors approach SNOTEL site on Mount Hood.

Even though SNOTEL sites are fully automated, they sometimes require attention and repair. And whether or not there are problems, snow surveyors check each site at least once a year to perform routine maintenance. Many SNOTEL sites are unreachable by road during winter, meaning Koeberle and the other NRCS snow surveyors have to get creative on how to reach sites. Visits to each site take a few hours for regular check-ups on the equipment. Occasionally, the gauges are damaged and take a few days to fix.

Damage can come from natural forces, or, as Koeberle learned this year, curious bears. This winter, her team flew into the North Cascades in Washington, to get to a pristine mountain without roads or resorts, where they repaired a structure damaged by bears. (Bears topple or tear apart the gauges occasionally.)

Sometimes horses are necessary to check the sites, including those in Yellowstone National Park, where helicopters are not allowed except for emergencies because of the disruptions to wildlife and tourists. In 2007, Koeberle and her colleagues rode horses for five days to reach a SNOTEL site.

Julie Koeberle digs a snow cave
Julie Koeberle digs a snow cave.

After earning her master’s in snow hydrology from Colorado State University, Koeberle worked as a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. Though she enjoyed the complexity and challenge of forecasting weather, her passion was snow. In May 2006 she accepted a position with NRCS as hydrologist and snow surveyor.

Koeberle, an outdoor sports enthusiast, especially enjoys those adventurous assignments. She has to stay in tip-top shape. Snow surveyors get an annual physical exam, and complete a week-long survival course every three years. One of their lessons is building a snow cave, which helps snow surveyors, like Koeberle, brave wintry nights on mountaintops. She has spent quite a few nights in these.

Koeberle says that she has found her dream job. She loves every moment of it – something about the combination of travel, adventure and physical challenge is irresistible. Plus, she and her teammates are tracking and logging key scientific information that benefits communities across the region.

Look for upcoming stories about snow survey, water supply forecasting, and how Western states use that information in planning and drought preparation.

Find out more about NRCS’s snow survey team and Climate and Water Center.