Although the West’s high mountain ranges hold a vast snowpack that provides 50 to 80 percent of the year’s water supply, nature cannot be relied upon to provide an uninterrupted, dependable supply of meltwater to meet all the downstream requirements. Successful water management begins with an adequate knowledge of the primary source of water in the West: snow.
Obtaining accurate and timely information on the extent and water content of the mountain snowpack requires specially trained people and unique equipment. Snow surveys require two-person teams to measure snow depth and water content at designated snow courses. A snow course is a permanent site that represents snowpack conditions at a given elevation in a given area. A particular snowpack may have several courses. Generally, the courses are about 500 feet long and are situated in small meadows protected from the wind.
Measurements generally are taken on or near the first of every month during the snowpack season. The frequency and timing of these measurements varies considerably with the location, the nature of the snowpack, difficulty of access, and cost. On occasion, special surveys are scheduled to help evaluate unusual conditions. The manual surveys involve travel and work in remote areas, often in bad weather, but reliable data are obtained.
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