Upping the game
Water managers turn to snowtography to better understand snowpack

Upping the game

Crews make a transect of snowtography sites, which include equipment to monitor snowpack and soil moisture, as well as a game camera. Installed at mid- to low-elevations, the sites fill a major gap in snow monitoring./?Courtesy photo

Jonathan Romeo - 12/08/2022

Amid the worst drought in more than a thousand years, the need to understand how the West’s forests and snowpack interact has become one of the most pressing issues for water managers in a world with less water.

That’s why some researchers and water managers are excited about the prospects of a new monitoring technique – called “snowtography” – which is about to expand in the forests of the San Juan Mountains.

“Our largest reservoir in the western U.S. is not Lake Mead, it’s not Lake Powell,” Jake Kurzweil, associate director of Mountain Studies Institute’s Water Program, said. “It’s our forests.”

It’s no secret that the effects of climate change are drying out the West at an alarming rate. In response, water officials have been researching how to not only better understand snowpack in the mountains, but also how it might be possible to better manage forests to maximize snow retention.

In steps the new word we all just learned – snowtography (kinda sounds like how you’d mispronounce Snowdown at the end of a long Snowdown night). But in reality, snowtography is a relatively new and novel way of tracking snowpack in parts of the landscape not previously studied, and hopefully, will lead to better forest-management practices.

“It fills in the gap for measuring snowpack in those lower-to-mid elevations,” Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said. “And it’s in those areas where we’re seeing the most change in our forests.”

Filling a gap

For years, the go-to monitoring method for tracking snowpack in the West has been a network of weather stations, known as SNOTEL sites. But the system has limitations, with only 730 or so sites across the entire West. And, SNOTELs are usually in the same terrain – at high elevations in areas exposed to the elements – which doesn’t provide the full picture of how snowpack is working across the landscape.

In fact, most of the West’s snowpack is in forested areas, which haven’t had as robust of monitoring systems in place. So, a few years ago, researchers in Arizona, wanting to better understand the watersheds Phoenix relies on, devised a more inclusive method of tracking snow, said Marcos Robles, a lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

First, a location is identified that has varied landscape features – areas with and without tree cover, different slopes, density of trees, etc. Then, stakes are placed into the ground, creating a transect through the areas, each with equipment that tracks snow depth and soil moisture, and a game camera. Just one transect can have 40 individual data points.

The overarching goal, Robles said, is to understand how different forest structures affect snowpack and, therefore, water supply.

“Ultimately, how much snow melts and ends up in our streams is a product of the forest setting, but also what’s happening with the climate,” Robles said. “And snowtography will provide more context for what’s happening in the forest.”

A new standard

It’s too early in the snowtography project to draw any conclusions just yet. On the ground, however, the long-term information taken from snowtography sites could be vital to adapting to a West with far less water than in the past.

One impact of the warming temperatures already affecting the West is earlier-than-normal snow run-off. As part of the snowtography project, researchers are trying to understand to what extent land management decisions, such as prescribed burns, forest thinning or timber harvesting, may have on snowpack. So, for example: if snowtography finds evidence that X amount of trees in X amount of acres leads to better snowpack retention, land managers could set those standards for a project like a timber sale.

“Forest structure can dramatically impact snow accumulation,” Kurzweil said. “So, we’re trying to find out, what is the best spacing between trees to accumulate and retain snow? Can we understand how our forests are set up to best optimize our water systems to be resilient?”

Also, the snowtography sites can help water managers predict how much runoff can be expected in a given season. In recent years, even during winters of average snowpack, a parched landscape has led to significant amounts of melting snow being sucked up by the soil. This means less water in rivers and reservoirs. With the sites, researchers can better account for where the snow is going.

“The science could help understand the soil moisture issues that we don’t have perfectly down yet,” Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said. “Soil moisture is tough to measure, but it appears to be more important now than ever, and we’re trying to up our game on it.”

Natural lab

The first snowtography site outside of Arizona was installed last year in the Chicken Creek area, north of Mancos. This year, two more were installed, on Lizard Head Pass and near McPhee Dam.

Currently, efforts are afoot to install several more sites in the San Juans this upcoming spring, near Silverton and Pagosa Springs.

“We’re trying to understand our mountains better,” Jeff Derry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies based in Silverton, said. “And the San Juan Mountains are a rich natural laboratory because we’re at the headwaters of several watersheds, so what happens here really helps inform all the surrounding watersheds.”

The long-term plan for the snowtography project, however, is to have a regional network all around the West for a richer picture of snowpack conditions in as many diverse landscapes as possible.

“We just don’t have a good perspective on what’s happening in lower- to mid-elevation forests,” Michael Remke, a lecturer of biology at Fort Lewis College, said. “We’re actively manipulating forests, and we don’t fully know the unintended consequences that has on snow, whether good or bad. The only way to understand that is a network of study sites like snowtography.”