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February's Gift: Idaho's Improving Water Prospects

BW joins the region's top hydrologists to hike Mores Creek Summit, measure snow water equivalent

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Ron Abramovich plunged an aluminum tube into the snowpack.

"It's deeper than I thought," he said.

Abramovich, water supply specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, was in search of some good news, knowing that much of Idaho is nervously anticipating another long, hot, dry summer, diminishing the Gem State's precious water supply. Abramovich had just led a group of the region's top water experts on Feb. 28 up to Mores Creek Summit, 54 miles from Boise but 6,100 feet above sea level. They were most interested in the snowpack gauge for the Boise Basin's SNOTEL (that's "snow telemetry") station.

The group--which included Idaho Department of Water Resources Bureau Chief Rick Raymondi, Pioneer Irrigation District Superintendent Mark Zirschky and Boise Weekly--discovered that February's robust snowfall was the equivalent of 10 inches of water. Snow water equivalent (SWE) is "the depth of water in the snowpack, if the snowpack were melted, expressed in inches," according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But it wasn't just any yard stick in Abramovich's grip; this aluminum device, marked like a ruler, included a portable scale hooked to a ski pole. It's a manual, 20th century technique for calculating SWE from snowpack core samples, in order to verify automated data that is transmitted hourly to a master NRCS station in Boise. SNOTEL sampling is taken regularly at given points to provide a comparison of the snow and water content numbers to stream flow figures in order to craft an accurate water availability forecast.

"We can still accumulate some more snow," Abramovich said, calling the current snowpack "marginally adequate," as he climbed through the top of three doors on a 23-foot-tall shelter house to confirm the electronic SWE readings being sent to Boise's master NRCS station.

Abramovich cautioned that higher temperatures in late winter or spring can sometimes rush water out of Idaho's high peaks before those who count on the mountain runoffs for river recreation and irrigation can make use of it. It's a dynamic, he explained, that can lead to sudden flooding if the snow melts too fast.

"We have five to seven days of wet weather coming [this coming week]," said Abramovich. "So, let's hope for some cool, wet weather going into spring."

February's bump in snowfall boosted the Boise Basin from 58 percent of average on Feb. 1 to 83 percent on March 1. The change was welcome news for the valley's farmers, who must decide in the next couple of weeks how they may want to approach this year's farming season.

"We're really focusing on the reservoirs right now," said Zirschky. "So, we rely heavily on these numbers."

Rex Barrie, watermaster for Boise River Water District No. 63, joined the Mores Creek site visit. He said the SNOTEL data also helps with public education and outreach about Idaho's most precious resource.

"There are 2,600 square miles in the Boise Basin, and I'm the [water district's] only employee. I administer all of the water rights," Barrie told BW. "My irrigators rely heavily on the natural flow. Ideally, what we want to see is a natural flow holding up until the Fourth of July."

But once that natural flow makes its way to the Treasure Valley's thousands of water rights holders, Barrie and Zirschky then have to help irrigators manage their summer water needs with whatever might have accumulated in the Boise River reservoir system.

"If we're running short, it's important for us to understand how these numbers are taken and how [those irrigators] are involved," said Zirschky. "It's extremely difficult for farmers if they don't have a chance to plan for a short season. It impacts them greatly."

In addition to a precipitation gauge and temperature sensor, the SNOTEL site includes something called "snow pillows"--large pockets of stainless steel or synthetic rubber, about 4-feet-square, filled with an antifreeze solution. As snow accumulates, the sensors record the pressure on the solution.

Abramovich next described an elaborate electromagnetic journey that the SWE data travels, via radio signals to the Boise master NRCS station, even bouncing off of trailing bits of meteorites as they burn through a band of space 50-75 miles above the Earth.

"I'm pretty impressed with the accuracy and the redundancy," said Raymondi.

Meanwhile, IDWR technical hydrologist Jennifer Cuhaciyan and Zirschky took turns taking snow course samples and calculating SWE.

Snow surveys in the West began when Dr. James Church of the University of Nevada established the first snow courses in the Sierras between 1905 and 1912. Abramovich said the manual effort to hike up Idaho's summits remains relevant for confirming automated data that is collected from the sensing instruments at some 78 stations across the state--part of a network of 850 stations throughout the Western United States.

"I didn't realize how involved it all is," Raymondi told BW, adding that IDWR maintains streamflow records that are also used to create forecasts for Idaho's "water year."

"I'm surprised that the [recent precipitation] we got at Mores Creek came in as snow. It was even coming in as rain over at Bogus," he said.

February's snowfall pushed the Mores Creek SWE up from a total of 14 inches on Feb. 1 to 24 inches on March 1. That 10-inch increase was double the average accumulation for the month of February.

"Although the water outlook for the Owyhees is expected to remain poor, the mountains in the Upper Snake River area are currently 135 percent of average," said Abramovich. For now, those who look at water data for a living are feeling much more optimistic than at the beginning of February.

As impressive as the most recent snow figures were, Cuhaciyan told BW that Abramovich's description of how the electronic SWE data--dancing through space, on its way to the master NRCS station--was the real "a-ha" moment for her.

"I'm still blown away thinking about bouncing that SNOTEL data off of meteorites," she said, before heading down the mountain back to Boise.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ron Abramovich's name. BW regrets the error