Harder, Feinstein Introduce Bill to Improve Water Management with Airborne Snow Observation Program

August 14, 2020
Press Release
Inaccurate Snowpack Readings Result in Water Waste, Substantial Financial Losses

WASHINGTON – Representative Josh Harder (CA-10) and Senator Dianne Feinstein today introduced the Snow Water Supply Forecasting Program Authorization Act to establish an airborne snow observatory (ASO) and measurement program within the Department of the Interior. Without accurate readings, water managers could be forced to unnecessarily release water from reservoirs or use it for groundwater pumping, resulting in millions of dollars in financial losses. A previous program run by NASA is no longer in operation, leaving water managers without the public information they need to make smart decisions about their water supplies. The bill would establish a program and provide a total of $15 million for fiscal years 2022 to 2026.

“Many of our rivers are born in the mountains – without accurate snowpack readings, we end up wasting our most precious resource – water – as well as millions of dollars in public funds,” said Rep. Harder. “Creating a unified central program to get our water users the info they need is good for our farmers, good for conservation practices, and will end up saving a ton of money in the long-run.”

“Smarter water management in California starts with more precise readings of our mountain snowpack,” said Senator Feinstein. “Our bill will ensure the federal government continues investing in proven snowpack measurement methods like the airborne snowpack observatory. This will help improve water conservation, supply and delivery forecasts across the Western United States.”

Last December, NASA ended its ASO program that measured snowpack depth ensures continued federal support for the program at the Department of the Interior – a beneficiary of accurate water supplies across the West –  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 percent accuracy when measuring snow runoff. 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, providing an error rate as low as 1 to 3 percent. 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.

In addition to Rep. Harder, the House version is cosponsored by Western Representatives Garamendi, McNerney, Cox, DeGette, Napolitano, Bera, Neguse, and Costa. Kamala Harris is cosponsoring the bill in the Senate.

The bill is supported by water associations and districts across California, including The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), Turlock Irrigation District (TID), Modesto Irrigation District (MID), South Valley Water Association, Friant Water Authority, Family Farm Alliance, Kings River Conservation District, San Juan Water District , City of Folsom, and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

Many organizations offered words of support for the legislation. Quotes from the organization are available below.

Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA): “The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) applauds the introduction of the Snow Water Supply Forecasting Program Authorization Act by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Josh Harder. One of ACWA’s highest priorities is strategic water management through the use of improved technologies. This legislation provides water managers with new snowpack measurement technologies that can assist in increasing water supplies, improving water management efficiencies, and enhancing flood control measures,” said Dave Eggerton, Executive Director of ACWA. ACWA’s more than 450 public water agency members provide 90% of the water used for agricultural, industrial, and municipal uses in California.

Turlock Irrigation District: “I want to thank Senator Feinstein and Congressman Harder for working with TID over the last year to introduce this important legislation,” said Turlock Irrigation District Board of Directors President, Dr. Rob Santos. “Our water resources are far too valuable to rely on the inconsistent 75 year-old technology in modeling snowmelt and forecasted runoff to optimize the management of our water storage reservoirs. TID is proud to be one of the first water managers in the country to put this cutting-edge technology to use. This bill will build on the great technological advances of the last decade and ensure that the Federal government continues to play an active role in expanding the adoption of these technologies.”

Modesto Irrigation District: “We applaud Senator Feinstein and Congressman Harder for their forward thinking and dedication to advancing water management in California.  Together with our Tuolumne River watershed partners, MID has had proven success in utilizing this science-based, data-driven forecasting technology,” said Modesto Irrigation District Board President Paul Campbell.  “This bill ensures that we will continue to have the very best tools and technologies to enhance our water modeling and management and without a doubt, help us navigate California’s dynamic weather patterns.” 

South Valley Water Association: “As one of the original funding partners for the ASO program, the South Valley Water Association sincerely appreciates Senator Feinstein and Congressman Harder for the Snow Water Supply Forecasting Program Authorization Act, which would ensure continued federal support for the ASO program.” said South Valley Water Association Executive Director Dan Vink. “This critical legislation will ensure that the Bureau of Reclamation has the tools it needs to precisely measure snowpack in the Upper San Joaquin watershed, which will benefit flood control, water supply and the environment in the San Joaquin Valley”.

Family Farm Alliance: "Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) technology generates data that greatly improves our ability to estimate water supply and runoff in the Western United States,” said Dan Keppen, Executive Director of the Family Farm Alliance, an organization of farmers, ranchers and water professionals focused on protecting Western irrigated agriculture. “This bill establishes a program within the Department of the Interior that will help improve the understanding, management, and deployment of snowpack measurement technologies and seasonal water forecasting in order to increase the accuracy of runoff models. We appreciate and want to thank Congressman Harder and Sen. Feinstein for their leadership on this issue, and we're hopeful that this legislation will allow for continued ASO application in California and the expansion of ASO technology application throughout the West."

Friant Water Authority: “In California, we’re finding that the conventional methods of measuring snowpack can, in some years, result in estimates that can be “off” by 40%-60%,” said Jason Phillips, CEO of Friant Water Authority. “As demand for water supplies to meet human and environmental needs increases throughout the West, we can no longer afford these costly errors. ASO is proven technology that reduces the “guesswork” of water supply forecasting so that water managers can make decisions that maximize the beneficial use of the supplies we have, especially during times of scarcity.” 

Northern California Water Association: “This bill will continue to advance the important role of forecasting hydrology, which directly leads to more informed planning and better management of our water supplies for people and the environment,” said David J. Guy, President, Northern California Water Association.