Snow depth and snow water content data have been collected and disseminated throughout the Western United States for over 100 years. Early snow survey and water supply data were gathered through the efforts of university scientists, beginning with the work of Dr. James E. Church. In 1935, the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), now the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), established a formal cooperative Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting (SS-WSF) Program. The Agency was charged with responsibility for “conducting snow survey and water supply forecasts and the forecasting of irrigation water supplies.” The new Program would also develop consistent methods for measuring snow and reliable models for accurate water supply forecasting.
Administered by NRCS, the SS-WSF Program has grown into a network of more than 1,200 manually-measured snow courses and over 750 automated Snowpack Telemetry (SNOTEL) weather stations in 13 Western States, including Alaska. (See map on page 4.) The SS-WSF Program provides manual snow course data collected by NRCS conservation professionals, automated SNOTEL data, and modeled water supply/streamflow volume data as well as issues streamflow forecasts for over 740 locations in the West. The data and the related reports and forecasts, are made available—in near real time for the automated SNOTEL sites—to private industry; to Federal, State, and local government entities; and to private citizens through an extensive Internet delivery system and other distribution channels.
With 50-80 percent of the water supply in the West arriving in the form of snow, data on the snowpack provides critical information to decision-makers and water managers throughout the West. The basic data become even more valuable when used in concert with partner organizations to provide water supply forecasting tailored to meet end-user needs. According to researchers from multiple U.S. and international agencies, research centers, and academia, changes in the world’s climate have resulted in a loss of predictability in weather, precipitation, and water transport and accumulation patterns. It is anticipated that the value the SS-WSF Program provides to society will increase over time as climate variability increases.
Recently a study was done to see who uses SS-WSF data, how the data are used, and the value of the data. Users of the data were interviewed and specific events and activities were analyzed. This publication is based on that study.