Community Ag Alliance: The science of snowmelt and water supply forecasting |

Community Ag Alliance: The science of snowmelt and water supply forecasting

Routt County residents continue to be reminded of the immense beauty of snow. But, dig a little deeper and beyond its aesthetic and recreational appeal, snow plays a vital role in our lives as the primary source of the water supply in the Western United States.

With as much as 75 percent of the water supply being derived from snowmelt, successful water planning and management of the state’s water resources begins with a comprehensive knowledge of current snowpack conditions and the ability to make informed decisions for the upcoming water year.

Since the 1930s, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has been using scientific measurements of mountain snowpack to quantify and forecast annual water supply in 12 western states. Snow surveyors from NRCS and other cooperating agencies manually collect data, such as the snow water equivalent (SWE) and snow depth, from over 1,600 snow courses several times each winter.

The SWE is the amount of water within the snowpack and can be thought of as the depth of water that would theoretically result if the snowpack melted instantaneously.

The NRCS also operates and maintains an extensive automated system that collects snowpack and climate data in real-time, called SNOTEL (SNOpack TELemetry). A variety of information collected from the two methods are available online to the public in several user-friendly interfaces, including interactive maps and report generators. The data is also translated into water supply forecasts that the NRCS State Office issues monthly from January to June in cooperation with the National Weather Service.

So, if you are wondering exactly how this year’s snowpack is measuring up, there are nine SNOTEL sites and two manual snow courses located at high elevations within the Yampa River Basin that conveniently provide us with this valuable data.

As of Dec. 29, the Yampa and White River Basins were reporting that the snowpack is 111 percent of median conditions for SWE and 93 percent of average precipitation for water year to date. The water year-to-date precipitation represents the total precipitation since Oct. 1, usually expressed in inches.

When running a comparison report, data reveals conditions are slightly behind 2014 statistics to this day. This local data can forecast annual streamflow of the Yampa River at specific points, help us operate our local reservoirs, provide input to fisheries management, manage domestic water use and flood control and much more.

Thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture NRCS systematic snowpack inventory and monitoring program, water supplies in the high country are quantifiable, and managers are able to be alerted early in the water year on whether to expect normal flows, water shortages or floods and can make plans while there is still time to take effective action.

So, whether you are planning your irrigation schedule for the upcoming season or monitoring current powder conditions on Buff Pass, real time situational data is available at your fingertips. For more information, contact your local Conservation District or NRCS field office at 970-879-3225×3 or visit

Christine Shook is a soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service field office in Steamboat Springs.

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