Community Agriculture Alliance: It’s snowing again!
February 18, 2008
Steamboat Springs — When most people see or hear the letters USDA. they assume that it has something to do with their food, or maybe even the natural resources, and they’re right. But did you know that the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the USDA, is in charge of recording the nation’s snowpack and precipitation? That’s right. We actually get to strap on the snowshoes and ride snowmobiles all in the name of work! It truly sounds like a fun joy ride, but this fun job can be a bit dangerous.
Snow is measured two ways. The first is by a Snotel site, which is a little building set up with electronic and satellite equipment that sends the data to an office site. These little sites often are tucked away in the wilderness, but each has its own weather station and a precipitation pillow. The pillow is filled with antifreeze, and the weight of the snow predicts the amount of water in it. It’s really quite a neat idea, and pretty cool. If you happen to come across one of these sites, don’t jump on the pillow, but it will be tempting because it looks a little like a trampoline.
The second way snow is measured is the most fun way for NRCS employees. There are courses set up in the mountains that we travel to at the end of every month and actually measure the snow by hand. We use a light-weight aluminum tube that allows us to measure the depth of the snow and the amount of water that is in our core sample. We take 5 to 10 samples, depending on the course, and average them to come up with the percent average water content. On nice, sunshiny days, it’s hard to believe that we get paid to play in the snow, but on nasty, snowy days, we have to keep our wits about us. Every employee who participates in a snow survey is required to keep his or her first aid certificates up to date. We also attend wilderness survival training, and about once every 6 to 8 years, we are required to take a weeklong refresher course, in which we build snow caves or shelters, and we are required to sleep in them for a night. This is done so that if we do get stranded out in the elements, we know how to survive them and we know what we need to be prepared. Having to stay at least a night out in the bad weather because of a snow survey seems to be more the norm then not. I guess I consider myself and my current employees lucky because we have not had to spend a night out yet. In the past, that has not always been the case for the Steamboat office.
Boy, do we have the snow this year! Although we all agree that it’s a good thing, I think it’s fair to say that most of us are sick of it. I just hope that the sun comes out one of these days. You may think that because we have so much snow we will have a lot of water, and that is not always the case, and this year is a good example. The Champagne powder just kept falling, but it was really dry. These latest storm events brought some heavier snow and have finally put us over the 100 percent average. We are now sitting at 114 percent, and that could increase with more snow. It looks as if we will have a muddy and wet spring, which is a great thing for all those green, luscious plants.