Christine Shook prepares to go into the backcountry to measure the snow at Butterhill and water content in North Routt County.

Photo by John F. Russell

Christine Shook prepares to go into the backcountry to measure the snow at Butterhill and water content in North Routt County.

Soil conservationist treks into the backcountry to count flakes and help predicting water content

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A few miles north of Columbine, soil conservationist Christine Shook pulls her oversized pickup to the shoulder of a narrow snow-packed road and looks out the window as a light snow falls from the sky.

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Water in the Bank

Natural Resources Conservation Service snow surveyor predicts future by heading into the backcountry.

This is her office, at least for the day. She will spend the next couple of hours completing snowpack surveys for Natural Resources Conservation Service at a couple of locations. It's something she does at the end of each month during winter starting in January and ending when the snow stops building in the spring. Today, she treks through the snow to specific spots to measure the snow depth, to weigh the core samples and factor how much water is in the snow now. It’s information that lets our community know how much water we can expect to flow through the creeks, rivers and into our reservoirs this summer.

“Today we are out measuring snow at the Butterhill snow course," she said. "It’s a manual survey. There are five points where we core down into the snowpack so that we can get an estimate of snow water equivalent, which tells us how dense the snow is and how much water is within that snowpack.”

The information is used to develop water supply forecast for agriculture users, recreational users, water managers and city managers in Routt County and across Colorado.

“We complete surveys the last week of every month,” Shook said.

Some of those sights, like the Butterhill snow course, are relatively easy to access. In this case, Shook drove about 45 minutes to a location just north of Columbine. The snow course was found after a short snowshoe trek off the road in an area that was established in the 1970s. Other times, Shook or her colleges must use snowmobiles to head several miles into the backcountry to find the specific spot. The area was selected because it gives the scientists an accurate measurement of how the snowpack is looking.

The information can help ranchers develop a strategy for water use in the summer months as well as helping cities and water managers figure out plans for dealing with the conditions that they will see when the weather gets warmer. Shook said recreational users also access the information where river flow and backcountry conditions also can be predicted by the information they gather.

“Snow survey is just a small part of my job,” Shook said.

Shook has been with the service for the past six years, and in the summer, her attention is turned to working with private landowners and agricultural producers within Routt County doing several types of conservation plans and resource-oriented management ranging from fencing projects, riparian restoration, riparian protection and upland wildlife habitat management.

The information has been collected for years, but the number of manual surveys is declining. Some sites are no longer monitored because of budget cutbacks, and today much of the information comes from SNOTEL sites, which are fully automated. The sites gather information every 15 minutes, which is sent directly to the state office before being disseminated. However, these sites are often checked manually to make sure the information is correct. They also have to be visited when they are not functioning properly.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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