Colorado snow could benefit New Mexico water crisis

NRCS Snow Survey Program provides monthly mountain snowpack data and streamflow forecasts for the western United States.

Counting snow flakes may not sound like an interesting job or even one that would be very important.

But Mike Strobel knows that what he does for a living has a far-reaching impact, one in which millions of Americans have a vested interest, including farmers, ranchers, traffic safety officials, highway engineers, communities, water and irrigation districts –just about every man, woman, child, and animal across the nation.

Technically, Mike doesn't count actual snow flakes, just the level of accumulation caused by extended snows over a month across the Colorado Rockies. He is manager for the USDA-NRCS Snow Survey Program. Winter is his favorite, at least most intense, time of year.

But is monitoring the accumulation of snow high in the Colorado mountains really all that important? It is to agriculture in the Southwest, including to Texas and  New Mexico farmers.

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In fact, six major waterways, including the Colorado River, start in the Rockies, and if the snow didn't fall and melt every spring, there would little or no water in those waterways after a period of time. And that could be very problematic. The Colorado River and its tributaries alone supply water to millions of people in seven states and as far south as Mexico.

Snow Survey

Strobel says the NRCS Snow Survey Program provides monthly mountain snowpack data and streamflow forecasts for the western United States. Common applications of snow survey products include water supply management, flood control, climate modeling, recreation, and conservation planning.

While measuring all that snowfall at so many places simultaneously is difficult, technology has saved the day in recent years. SNOwpack TELemetry, or SNOTEL, an automated snow data collection system first installed in 1980, replaced having to manually measure snowfall depths in the mountains, a measure mandated by Congress in the early 1930s.

Climate studies, air and water quality investigations, and resource management concerns are all served by the modern SNOTEL network. The high-elevation watershed locations and the broad coverage of the network provide important data collection opportunities to researchers, water managers, and emergency managers for natural disasters such as floods.

This year, for the first time in over four years, the snowpack for much of the Rockies looks to be almost the normal annual average. At last count, about 90 percent of the annual snowfall average has fallen in the central Colorado Rockies, with a chance for more over the next few weeks.

Experts say New Mexico could receive more snowmelt runoff in the Rio Grande this year as a result of near-average year, but farther West snow accumulations at higher levels are less, meaning less runoff in the spring. For instance, California's mountainous areas have received as little as 50 percent of their average accumulation so far and chances of them catching up to their average before the season passes is practically nil.

"It looks dismal for much of the West," said  Strobel.

The far Northwest has received more winter rains but a shortage of snow, so the annual snowmelt will offer less inflow to rivers and streams this spring there as well.

Back to the Northern Rockies, mountainous regions in both Wyoming and Montana are looking better than in recent years, though Strobel says more snow before season's end is needed.

A deeper look at snow data

It's interesting to note just how Strobel and associates collect the data used in their surveys. While old technology is used to transmit radio signal updates these 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.

There are a total of over 730 SNOTEL sites in 11 western states. The sites are generally located in remote high-mountain watersheds where access is often difficult or restricted. Access for maintenance by NRCS includes various modes from hiking and skiing to helicopters.

Sites are designed to operate unattended and without maintenance for a year. They are battery powered with solar cell recharge, and the condition of each site is monitored daily when it reports on eight specific operational functions. Serious problems or deteriorating performance triggers a response from the NRCS electronic technicians located in six data collection offices.

The SNOTEL sites are polled by two master stations operated by NRCS in Boise, Idaho, and Ogden, Utah. A central computer at the NRCS National Water and Climate Center (NWCC) in Portland, Oregon, controls system operations and receives the data collected by the SNOTEL network.

More snow needed

While overall the snowpack for January and February hovers near 90 percent, New Mexico, which will benefit from what has accumulated so far this winter, may not get the bump hoped for unless more snow this month and next. The Rockies in Southern Colorado have less snow than most other parts of the range, with many areas in the extreme southeast part of the state reporting less than 78 percent the annual average.

It would take large snowfalls this month and next to bring the statewide snowpack up to average according to the survey in Colorado. NRCS officials say the chances of that happening are, at best, unlikely.

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