Aerial technology being used to gather snowpack data

(KTXL) — Two months are left in California’s “wet season,” where the snowpack and the water it contains are closely monitored. 

The amount is critical in dealing with the state’s drought. 

About 30% of the water California uses comes from snowmelt. That is why measuring it accurately is important. 

The old familiar snow survey where a pole goes into the ground and gets weighed for water content is one piece of the puzzle. The Department of Water Resources also relies on about 125 electronic sensors that measure the snowpack. 

But now, a much newer technology is increasingly coming into play. 

“The Airborne Snow Observatory is an aircraft that has a scanning lidar and an imaging spectrometer on board. And from 23,000 feet flying over, we can measure the snow depth to within about 2 1/2 inches. From 23.000 feet, still blows me away and I’ve been doing this for over a decade now,” said Thomas Painter, CEO and founder of Airborne Snow and Observatories, Inc. 

Painter’s technology doesn’t replace the older methods, but it helps complete the picture. 

“So, what’s measured from 23,000 feet from an airplane can be validated on the ground with our snow courses and our snow sensors,” said David Rizzardo, DWR manager. 

Rizzardo further explained the Airborne Snow Observatory allows the state to measure a much larger area, including places that would be impossible to access on foot. The plane flies back and forth on a grid, getting data every 3 square meters. 

The technology has been available for about 10 years, and it’s been a gradual rollout as the state’s budget allows. 

“This year we received a little bit more funds, and we’ll be doing the Feather River, the Yuba River, and also the Truckee and Carson Rivers around Lake Tahoe,” Rizzardo said. “Our budget is still a little limited, so we’re only getting about three or four flights per year during the snowpack season.”

Having more accurate snowpack data is very helpful when deciding how much water to release from reservoirs. 

“Ideally, we would like to roll out a program that is more like eight to ten flights a year, so we can really capture the change in the snowpack throughout the season,” Rizzardo said. “I know we’re in a drought. But when we have flood years, one of the biggest questions is, how much of that snowpack is going to come down, and when is it going to come down, on top of the fact that the reservoirs are already full from rainfall and everything else.” 

He said during dry times like California is experiencing now, the measurements are important predictors of how much of that water will make it into reservoirs. 

It’s a great technology leading to new understandings. But it doesn’t take away from the importance of water conservation. 

“One or two really good weeks of snowstorms doesn’t make an entire season, and it doesn’t fill in the hole from the drought the last two years,” Rizzardo said. “And so water conservation and just smart use of your water has become more critical.” 

The Department of Water Resources has several other partners around the state that are helping fund the aerial technology. The Bureau of Reclamation and many water agencies are investing in it as well. 






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