Nothing beats a week of gray skies and stuffy suits in Washington like a sunny day in Colorado’s high country. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to strap on some snowshoes for a short hike on Berthoud Pass with local water managers and staff from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. They were taking a manual reading of the state’s snowpack and checking the automatic SNOTEL measurement device. Undersecretary Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top environmental and natural resource official, and the man who oversees NRCS, also came along.
These snowpack measurement systems, some that date back to the 1900s, are a critical part of the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting program that Colorado water officials rely on to anticipate river flows in the spring when the snow melts and calculate how much water will run off into rivers and reservoirs. Our state’s farmers and ranchers depend on these forecasts to decide how much and what type of crops to plant, while metropolitan leaders use the data to decide how best to meet their needs in the coming years and to prepare for potential flooding.
Beyond Colorado, these measurements are important for states downstream that depend on our watersheds. Colorado contains nine major watersheds, each with its own snowfall patterns and obligations to other states. While some of these water sources may be at 100 percent, in other regions the levels may be less than half of the normal supply. Many of the state’s water rights agreements are predicated on the level of snowpack making the accuracy of these measurements particularly important.
Recently, however, funding for the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program was threatened by budget cuts and sequestration.
Colorado communities from across the state shared their strong concerns that cutting funding to this program would damage the accuracy of the measurements and reduce the effectiveness of this vital planning tool. In response to these concerns, we joined forces with Colorado’s water community, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton to urge the NRCS to reconsider the cuts. After working with local communities, water managers and the NRCS, we secured funding for the program for this winter. In addition, we secured funding in congress for the next fiscal year.
We are not out of the woods yet though. While we provided much-needed breathing room in the short-term, we must continue to work to explore options to ensure the program’s long-term sustainability.
Water is one of our state’s most valuable resources. In the face of unending drought in southern Colorado, historic levels of flooding on the Front Range, and significant population growth, the accuracy of these measurements is increasingly critical. Today’s snowpack is tomorrow’s water, and it is vital to our state’s future that we work together to ensure that our farmers, city leaders and water managers have the tools they need to accurately forecast how much of this precious resource they’ll have each and every season.