Community Agriculture Alliance: 2017 snowpack off to impressive start |

Community Agriculture Alliance: 2017 snowpack off to impressive start

Vance Fulton/For Steamboat Today

Community Agriculture Alliance

After a dismal start, the Yampa/White River Basin snowpack for Feb. 1 was listed at 128 percent of median, quite a contrast from the mid-December reading of 90 percent of median.

This is according to automated Snotel data collected from 20 sites throughout Northwest Colorado. Snotel, which stands for snow telemetry, is a network of automated snowpack and precipitation monitoring sites operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service throughout the western United States.

Automated data from the Tower Snotel site on Buffalo Pass, which is known to be one of the largest snow fall areas in the Rocky Mountains, was reporting 111 percent of median on Feb. 1, with 98 inches of snow depth and 30.4 inches of snow water equivalent, or SWE. SWE is the amount of water stored in the snowpack and is also referred to as "water content" or "moisture content".

The heaviest Feb. 1 snowpack on record, for the Tower Snotel site, was a reading of 46.2 inches of SWE in 1997.

Also on Feb. 1, The Lost Dog Snotel site, located about 3 miles north of Seed House, reported a snow depth of 63 inches and an SWE of 20.5 inches.

On-site snowpack readings, taken the last week of January by NRCS snow surveyors Kendall Smith and Vance Fulton, also indicate well-above average snowpack for Northwest Colorado.

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The Yampa View Snow Course, located on the western side of Rabbit Ears Pass, averaged 49 inches of snow depth and contained 11.3 inches of SWE, which is 118 percent of the 30 year median for that site.

The Rio Blanco Ranch Snow Course near Trappers Lake came in at 133 percent of median, with a 40-inch snow depth and 11.4 inches of SWE.

Snow Courses are designated snowpack monitoring sites, which have been laid out and mapped. Some date back to the 1940s. They have specific sampling points, and must be recorded manually, with no fancy telemetry.

Measurements are done with a special core sampling tube and scale. The depth is recorded, and each sample is weighed to determine snow water equivalent and density. Each snow course has 5 to 15 sampling points. Snow courses readings are done during the last week of each month, beginning in January and ending in April.

In addition to sampling the snow courses, Smith and Fulton also took manual readings at the newly installed Elkhead Divide Snotel site, located between California Park and Slater Park in northwest Routt County. This recent addition to the Snotel network will provide better water supply forecasting for the Elkhead and Little Snake River drainage basins. Sixty one inches of snow depth and 18.6 inches of SWE were recorded there.

Snowpack measurements are vital for water supply forecasting throughout the western United States. The data is used by multiple government agencies and many agricultural and municipal water users.

For more information, including current snowpack and precipitation data, visit

Vance Fulton is an engineering technician with NRCS based in Steamboat Springs.