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Snowpack readings to remain accurate thanks to federal funding
Rep. Harder secures $15 million for NASA’s ASO program
snowpack aerial
The Airborne Snow Observatory uses the Twin Otter aircraft to fly over the Sierra, collecting data on the snow melt (File photo courtesy of Airborne Snow Observatory).

An accurate analysis of the state’s water supply is always important, especially during a dry year like the region is currently experiencing. New federal funding recently secured by Rep. Josh Harder will ensure local water management remains consistent — and correct — by ensuring continued support of the Aerial Snowpack Observatory program. 

Harder was joined by leaders from Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District on Tuesday for a press conference celebrating the $15 million in funding over the next five years for the program, which had previously been managed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Upon developing the new technology over six years ago, NASA selected the local Tuolumne River Watershed as one of the first watersheds in the world to test the ASO program. 

When it was learned that NASA would be ending the program in December 2019, Josh Weimer of TID approached Harder shortly after he was sworn in as Congressman and explained to him how critical the continued funding of the program would be. 

“It was really compelling, and I knew the only thing standing in our way was making sure we had either federal or state support for it...It’s rare that you have these win-wins where you can do something that actually helps farmers and do something that’s supported by the environmental community, and this is an example of that,” Harder said. “...Ultimately, this boils down to better measurement means better predictions, which means more water for folks across the Valley.”

The ASO program measures snowpack depth, helping improve the understanding, management and deployment of snowpack measurement technologies used for seasonal water forecasting. Conventional survey techniques can only achieve 50% to 90% accuracy when measuring snow runoff, but 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.

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.

Recent snowpack readings using the ASO program were critical when determining the irrigation cap allotment for farmers this year, Weimer said, and also helps TID and MID determine how much water to release for fish flow purposes.

The Tuolumne River Watershed covers roughly 1,500 square miles, he explained, and the antiquated method of measuring the snowpack saw crews monitor 17 different measurement points across the area. The ASO program uses laser pulses to measure the area first without snow, then with snow to determine how deep the snowpack is.

“This gives you a really good understanding since it’s not one of 17 points of measurement over the entire watershed, but a specific meter by meter model of how much snow is there,” Weimer said.

The latest snow survey showed statewide snowpack is just 61% of average, with only two wet months left in the water year.