Federal budget cuts threaten snowpack monitoring efforts
FORT COLLINS — For the first time in nearly a century, several snowpack monitoring sites in Colorado’s mountains may be abandoned this winter due to federal budget cuts.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service announced in late October that it might eliminate 47 of its 72 Colorado “snow course” sites, where scientists trek to measure snow, The Coloradoan reported Wednesday.
Since the early 1900s, the NRCS has kept records of snow depth and weight to help predict spring runoff. The estimates are used by reservoir managers, water conservation districts and farmers across the state. The budget for the NRCS Snow Survey Program in the West — which spans from New Mexico to Montana and from Colorado to California — has been cut by 15 percent since 2011, forcing the agency to cut staff.
Some of the Colorado monitoring sites that could be closed have records dating back to 1936.
“The short of it is, the snow program as a whole has taken budget cuts over the past few years, and yeah, I mean those cuts are very real,” said Mage Hultstrand, an assistant snow survey supervisor. “I think this year we are talking another 8 percent.”
The decision to abandon more than half of the snow measuring sites inspired a group of 100 water conservation districts and farmers across the state to save them, possibly by paying for monitoring themselves. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, one member of the group, uses 23 of the NRCS snow measuring sites, four of which are on the elimination list, said spokesman Brian Werner.
“All four of those are on the Western Slope,” he said. “They are pretty critical for the forecast.”
Since the 1930s, field officers have been measuring snow density across Colorado. In the 1970s NRCS began the SNOTEL program, which uses equipment to measure snow.
SNOTEL updates are hourly and available on the Internet; that aspect of the program will not be cut, said B.J. Shoup, a soil scientist with the program.
In 2011, the snow monitoring program’s budget for the entire western United States was $10.9 million. In 2012, the budget dropped to $9.3 million, and this year it dropped to $8.56 million. The program, like other federal agencies, is being funded by a continuing resolution in the meantime.
NRCS reduced its staff of 42 snow surveyors to 19 so it can continue to monitor the 47 Colorado sites in jeopardy. For 2014, it expects its budget for measuring Colorado sites to be $78,741. The details of a potential arrangement with stakeholders to pay for surveying have not yet been worked out, Hultstrand said.
The Colorado office, which monitors Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and southern Wyoming, has a staff of six, with two vacant positions, said Hultstrand. The Colorado program hopes that employees of other agencies can start monitoring the sites at their own cost.
“This data is very important to a lot of people,” Hultstrand said.
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