Snow-survey funding

As most westerners are keenly aware, today’s snow is tomorrow’s water, and knowing just how much snow is in the bank during the colder months is critical to planning how the forthcoming water will be managed when the days lengthen and temperatures warm. Monitoring this important information is not free, of course, but what it yields in terms of climate, flooding and water resource information is invaluable, and funding the program is a priority. Thanks in part to input from Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Democrats, as well as Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, the snow-survey program is off the chopping block – for now.

Twelve states have Snotel sites that collectively paint the regional water-resource picture from data gathered at 600 sites across the West. There are more than a dozen such locations in the San Juan Basin alone. This information helps water managers plan for the summer’s irrigation, and recreation and conservation needs, as well as provides critical climate-pattern insight. The program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that, like most others, is competing for scarce funds. For now, though, money for the Snotel sites has been secured through August, with direct orders to those who rely on the data to come up with “a more sustainable funding source for the program,” said Udall spokesman Mike Saccone.

Alas, that may well require others to kick in to help pay for the wide-ranging information that Snotel sites provide. But it is well worth it. As Tipton, Udall and Bennet wrote in a letter to NRCS, “Our state contains nine major watersheds, each with its own distinct snowfall patterns and obligations to downstream states. For example, current water supplies across the state range from 100 percent of normal in some areas to 40 percent in others. The ability to accurately measure snowpack in each basin ... is essential for water districts and municipalities to meet the demands of competing users.”

The lawmakers are correct in standing together to urge continued funding for the Snotel sites through NRCS’ limited budgets. They are also right to call on the stakeholders to seek a longer-term solution for meeting the program’s bottom line. The conversation has served to remind all involved that the Snotel program is much more than a novelty that shows how deep the snow is on a given day. It tells, instead, how wide the rivers will be, and for how long. That matters a lot to many people: farmers, ranchers, boaters, scientists, firefighters and many others – not to mention the agricultural interests and municipalities of downstream states. Snotel is a valuable public resource that is well worth the investment.

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