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NASA Launches Pilot Project To Measure Snowpack From The Sky

Andrew Nixon
Capital Public Radio
The new way to snow survey could give more accurate estimates up to a month early.

After five years of drought there’s so much snow in the Sierra Nevada that state water officials are preparing for a massive runoff year. But the traditional way of calculating the snowpack has a huge margin of error and as Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero reports a new way to measure it could greatly decrease that inconsistency.  

Every winter and spring a network of snow surveyors manually tally how much snow is in the Sierra Nevada. They do this by measuring snow depth in the same spots every year.

"To the extent there is uncertainty in a forecast then the end user has to hedge their bets." - Frank Gehrke, DWR

Pacific Gas and Electric HydrographerChristine Bohrman and I hopped out of a helicopter in 2014 in the mountains east of Fresno to do this.

As we snowshoed to a spot where snow levels have been recorded since 1928 she pierced the snow with a hollow aluminum tube.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Snow surveys like this take place throughout the winter months in the Sierra Nevada. Christine Bohrman is detecting the depth of the snow by piercing the snow.

"Now this seems pretty soft so I’m going to let it go down pretty easily,” Bohrman says.

When she finished she told me to record the measurements. "Forty-nine,” Bohrman says. “Eight inches of water content.”


Crews like Bohrman’s either ski or fly in, but that could change with the use of new technology. A four year pilot project between NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California Department of Water Resourcesand local water authorities is measuring the snowpack from the sky.


They’re using planes that shoot out laser pulses to detect how deep the snowpack is and how much water is in it. It started out as a test project on the Tuolumne Watershed four years ago and is now being used on the San Joaquin River Watershed. Kat Bormann is one of the NASA scientists based in Mammoth who work on the plane.


“This one here is the LIDAR. It has two laser sources situated within the unit itself,” Bormann says. “We can push out 800,000 points per second with this unit.”  

"They found depths of 50 feet in some of the avalanche areas. If you can imagine 50 feet of snow that's Donner Party depths. It's crazy." - Jeff Payne, Friant Water Authority

Those pulses bounce back to the unit and combined create a map of the area. The team flies the plane over the region when there’s no snow and then again at the start of each month from February to April. Subtract the first value from the second and then voila you have the snowpack depth. A second unit on the plane detects the snows density. That's called the imaging spectrometer.

Thomas Painter is the NASA scientist who came up with the idea. He says to think of the old system of manual surveys like a computer screen with only a few pixels working.

Credit Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
Capital Public Radio
The two units in the plane are LIDAR and an image spectrometer.

“Over 30 years of looking at those pixels turn you’ve put together a relationship together of what the actual picture is, but you don’t actually ever know what the actual picture is,” says Painter. “Where as we’re turning on every pixel on the screen.”

"That uncertainty that's been a part of water management in the west is going to go away." - Thomas Painter, NASA

Painter says this is a big deal because manual snow surveys can be off by 20 to 60 percent. In his past flyovers of the Tuolumne Watershed the new measurements were only about two percent off. He says the data also shows what snow will melt first based on how dark it is.

“That allows us to do a very certain forecast of how much water’s going to come out of the basins,” Painter says. “That uncertainty that’s been a part of water management in the west is going to go away.”


The first set of data from the flyovers of the San Joaquin Watershed from February show there’s just over a million and a half acre feet of snow waiting to melt in the mountains east of Fresno. That’s like a million and a half football fields with a foot of water covering their entirety. That number is expected to greatly increase when data comes in from the March and April flyovers. Jeff Payneis the Water Resources and Operations Coordinator for the Friant Water Authority that oversees the basin.


“They found depths of 50 feet in some of the avalanche areas,” says Payne. “If you can imagine 50 feet of snow that’s Donner Party depths. It’s crazy. It’s going to be really eye opening for us to incorporating these things into our water supply management.”


Credit NASA/Friant Water Authority
This map represents the first flyover of the San Joaquin River Basin.

If using this technology proves to be as good as it sounds Payne says its success has huge ramifications for California. Frank Gehrke leads the California Cooperative Snow Program collecting snowpack data.

He says the precision that comes with using this technology may prove helpful for farms and cities in wet and dry years because they might get a water supply forecast up to a month earlier than they do now.


Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
To the naked eye Millerton Lake already looks plenty full. Reservoir managers are working to drop the level to accommodate spring runoff.

“[You need to] know how much acreage you should plant and what you should grow,” Gehrke says. “Do you have to hook your wells up? To the extent there is uncertainty in a forecast then the end user has to hedge their bets.”

Gehrke says the only problem the new technology poses is how expensive it is to operate. He says it can cost three times as much as the amount it costs for the manual survey.


Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
There's about 10,000 cubic feet of water pouring out of Friant Dam a second.

The other benefit from the aerial surveys is precise knowledge about potential flooding. That’s important to water managers like Michael Jackson who oversees Friant Dam for the Bureau of Reclamation.

As we look at water spewing from the dam he says he expects more than 4 million acre feet to flow out of Friant Dam and down the San Joaquin River this spring. The reservoir only holds about 520,000 acre feet.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
The majority of the extra water is flowing out of Friant Dam and down the San Joaquin River.

"We’ll probably end up needing to draw it down to below 300,000 acre feet in order to make room for what’s shaping up to be a record snowpack and runoff year,” Jackson says.

For Jackson knowing exactly how much water will flow into Millerton Lake northeast of Fresno is super important to protecting homes, farms and levees from flooding.


“The better information we have the more certainty we can provide in our operations,” Jackson says. “It could come down even to a safety issue like this year with all the flood control parameters we’re working with so we don’t have to release too much water downstream.”


As the new data continues to come in, the old way of snow surveying won’t totally go away. For at least the coming years water leaders will compare the data from the two methods to see if there are any inaccuracies.


Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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