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Harder, Feinstein collaborate to keep snowpack readings accurate
A new bill introduced by Rep. Josh Harder and Sen. Dianne Feinstein hopes to improve the state’s water management by establishing an airborne snowpack observation program (California Department of Water Resources file photo).

A correct analysis of the state’s water supply is always important, but especially during drought years. A new bill introduced by Rep. Josh Harder and Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday hopes to improve the state’s water management by establishing an airborne snowpack observation program.

The Snow Water Forecasting Program Authorization Act would create an airborne snow observatory and measurement program within the Department of the Interior — a necessity given a previous program run by NASA is no longer in operation, leaving water managers without the public information they need to make informed decisions about their water supplies.

Without accurate readings, these managers could be forced to unnecessarily release water from reservoirs or use it for groundwater pumping, resulting in millions of dollars in financial losses.

“Many of our rivers are born in the mountains – without accurate snowpack readings, we end up wasting our most precious resource – water – as well as millions of dollars in public funds,” Harder said. “Creating a unified central program to get our water users the info they need is good for our farmers, good for conservation practices, and will end up saving a ton of money in the long-run.”

In December 2019, NASA concluded management of the ASO program and transferred it to the private sector. This reduced certainty for the program’s federal support, which is needed for improved water conservation, supply and delivery forecasts across the West.

Correct snowpack readings are especially critical in the current climate; California entered the summer months with a snowpack well below average. During the fifth and final snowpack reading at Phillips Station on April 30, it measured 1.5 inches deep and had a snow water equivalent of 0.5 inches, or just three percent of the May average for that location. Statewide, the snowpack was estimated to be at 37 percent of average.

The snowpack usually supplies about 30 percent of California’s freshwater needs when it melts during the early summer months. Higher measurements mean reservoirs will receive more water through the summer and fall, and the supply provides clean drinking water, renewable energy and feeds the state’s ecosystems.

Conventional survey techniques can only achieve 50 to 90 percent accuracy when measuring snow runoff. The ASO technology developed by NASA can perform more precise measurements, increasing the accuracy to within 96 to 99 percent when paired with conventional techniques, providing an error rate as low as 1 to 3 percent. More precise measurements allow water managers to make better determinations on water allocations – using more water when it’s available and conserving water when it’s not.

In addition to Rep. Harder, the House version is cosponsored by Western Representatives Garamendi, McNerney, Cox, DeGette, Napolitano, Bera, Neguse, and Costa. Kamala Harris is cosponsoring the bill in the Senate.

“Smarter water management in California starts with more precise readings of our mountain snowpack,” said Senator Feinstein. “Our bill will ensure the federal government continues investing in proven snowpack measurement methods like the airborne snowpack observatory. This will help improve water conservation, supply and delivery forecasts across the Western United States.”

The bill is supported by water associations and districts across California, including The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), Turlock Irrigation District (TID), Modesto Irrigation District (MID), South Valley Water Association, Friant Water Authority, Family Farm Alliance, Kings River Conservation District, San Juan Water District , City of Folsom, and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

TID Board of Directors President Dr. Rob Santos said Feinstein and Harder have worked with TID over the last year to introduce the “important” legislation.

“Our water resources are far too valuable to rely on the inconsistent 75-year-old technology in modeling snowmelt and forecasted runoff to optimize the management of our water storage reservoirs. TID is proud to be one of the first water managers in the country to put this cutting-edge technology to use,” Santos said. “This bill will build on the great technological advances of the last decade and ensure that the Federal government continues to play an active role in expanding the adoption of these technologies.”