Water Professionals Take a Snow Day

By Fiona Smith, From the Colorado Water Congress Blog

For many water professionals, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day responsibilities of our jobs. Let us not forget the origin of Colorado’s most crucial natural resource. 80% of Colorado surface water supplies come from snowpack- but what does that mean exactly? How is snowpack measured and what effect does that have on water resource management?

From February 12-14, myself and five others, attended the “Snow Course for Water Professionals” hosted by the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies (CSAS). The class was held at the CSAS office on the main street of Silverton, CO. Packed with six attendees, Chris Landry (Executive Director) and Kim Buck (Data and Admin), we settled into our chairs and began the first of three morning lectures. Landry provided a basic overview of global climate patterns and their effect on Colorado’s climate predictions. With the Pineapple Express in mind and coffee in our bellies, we absorbed equations related to snowmelt energy budget, examined snowmelt metamorphism, and learned about the hideous effect of dust on our snowpack; we discussed albedo, snow water equivalent, and how to choose a deep powder line in the backcountry.

Chris Landry, Executive Director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, teaches snow metamorphism in the first morning lecture of the "Snow School for Water Professionals." Photo courtesy of Matt Hoobler.

Chris Landry, Executive Director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, teaches snow metamorphism in the first morning lecture of the “Snow School for Water Professionals.” Photo courtesy of Matt Hoobler.

Our afternoons were dedicated to the field. After lunch, we strapped on our ski boots and snowshoes, lathered on the sunscreen and hit the hills. We dug snow pits and measured snow water equivalent, visited the CSAS Senator Beck Basin monitoring area and explored the Red Mountain Pass SNOTEL and manual snow course.

It was through both lectures and hands-on field experience that I gained a greater understanding of how Colorado water management and hydrologic modeling relies heavily upon snowpack data to plan for the variability of the state’s climate and water supplies. This data is collected primarily with manual course surveys and snow telemetry (SNOTEL). While CSAS operates a unique and crucial study area (Senator Beck Basin), the majority of Colorado snowpack data comes from manual snow course and SNOTEL sites funded and operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Mapping layers in the snowpack. Left to right: Matt Hoobler (Wyoming State Engineer's Office), Fiona Smith (Colorado Water Congress), Dave Kanzer (Colorado River District)

Mapping layers in the snowpack. Left to right: Matt Hoobler (Wyoming State Engineer’s Office), Fiona Smith (Colorado Water Congress), Dave Kanzer (Colorado River District). Photo courtesy of Chris Landry.

Measuring snow water equivalent. Left to right: Jim Pokrandt (Colorado River District), Slade Connell (City of Grand Junction), Mark Ritterbush (City of Grand Junction). Photo courtesy of Matt Hoobler.

Measuring snow water equivalent. Left to right: Jim Pokrandt (Colorado River District), Slade Connell (City of Grand Junction), Mark Ritterbush (City of Grand Junction). Photo courtesy of Matt Hoobler.

Water managers use the SNOTEL and snow course data found on the NRCS website to predict drought and reservoir levels and to schedule the reservoir releases upon which Colorado’s environment, agriculture, and human population rely.

Last year, the NRCS was compelled to consider retiring 47 manual snow course sites throughout the state as a result of their declining budget and sequester cuts. Through a last-minute reallocation of funds they’ve stretched the budget to fund these sites through August 2014, after which lies a big question mark.

Chris Landry and the class visit the Red Mountain Pass SNOTEL site.

Chris Landry and the class visit the Red Mountain Pass SNOTEL site.

For anyone whose days are filled with conversation surrounding water, this course is invaluable. Whether you’re trained as an engineer or a lawyer, a little knowledge of snowpack albedo and energy available for melt may help remind you that we can take neither a drop of water, nor the machines and people that track it for granted in our arid state.

CSAS will offer a similar course in 2015. Learn more about the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies online, and follow them on Facebook. Check back to find out when next year’s course registration will be open.

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