Snow survey shows promise for water supply

By Observer editorial January 21, 2011 02:30 pm
Mountains are more than just pretty decorations here in the Wild West. Snow is more than just a playground for cold-weather enthusiasts. And water is more than just silvery ribbons posing for photographers. The local Blue and Wallowa ranges hold about 75 percent of the region’s annual water supply. And water is the lifeblood of the West.

Nature cannot be depended on to give a reliable supply of snow. Some years are much snowier than others. Drought occasionally rears its ugly head. El Nino and La Nina weather patterns alternate to give us more or fewer storms.

Snow surveys are taken throughout the winter to get an idea of just what the water picture looks like. These surveys help the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in a myriad of ways. They learn about water content of the snow — not all snow is made alike — and make streamflow forecasts. The USDA also uses the data collected for water supply management, flood control, climate modeling, recreation, conservation planning and much more.

The first snow survey results in the Grande Ronde Basin were good news for irrigators and local communities alike. According to Mike Burton, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in
La Grande, “There have only been three times in the last 56 years of record that the snow surveys have been this high.”

But now, Mother Nature has thrown a monkey wrench into the works. A warming trend has melted a good portion of the vast amounts of snow that fell earlier. What the rest of the winter holds is anybody’s guess.

For now, however, people are happy that a good base of snow has been established. With drought being a normal part of life in the West, any time ample snow falls is cause for celebration.

Agriculture, industry and communities make heavy demands on this water. All need a dependable supply and reasonably priced, good quality water. Decisions need to be made on what crops to plant based on reliable forecasts of the year’s water supply.

Fish thrive in the water that remains flowing through the area’s streams. Power generation depends on generous amounts of water flowing through reservoirs at the right time of year.

There is a critical tie between winter snowpack in western mountains and summer water supply. Water users increase their demands on the resource year by year as population grows throughout the West. Thanks to a systematic snowpack inventory at about 700 sites, water supplies are no longer a mystery.  Conservation efforts help extend this resource as far as possible, and use it to the best of our abilities to make the West blossom.