The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service will continue to generate daily snowpack maps across the West for at least one more winter.
An agency-wide software upgrade had threatened to nix the maps, which measure percent of snowpack in mountain basins compared to normal conditions. Farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts have come to rely on the maps as an easy-to-read guide for predicting water availability, as melting snow gradually replenishes streams and reservoirs into summer.
Rashawn Tama, management analyst and information technology program lead for the NRCS Water and Climate Center in Portland, said the maps are generated by a computer known as the “Black Box,” which is customized to process and format snowpack data 24/7. But with the agency scheduled to upgrade to Microsoft Windows 10 beginning Nov. 1, staff anticipated problems getting the two systems to mesh.
On Oct. 23, the USDA approved a six-month extension allowing the “Black Box” to continue running on Windows 7 through May 1, 2019, ensuring the maps will hang around for one more season while the Water and Climate Center works to troubleshoot technical issues.
“I am cautiously optimistic that by May 1 or shortly thereafter, we will be able to provide some long-term continuity with those products,” Tama said. “In order to troubleshoot that system, we’re going to need the right technical minds looking at that.”
In an email to the NRCS Office of the Chief Information Officer requesting an extension, Cara McCarthy, who works with the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, said the last time they did a system upgrade, it took two experienced programmers approximately two weeks to get the “Black Box” up and running again.
“Because we do not have that same IT support anymore, we anticipated this problem last spring and put a note on these maps,” McCarthy wrote in the email. “We have received lots of feedback that they are still used by many.”
The “Black Box” may look like an ordinary desktop computer on the outside, Tama said, but it is what’s inside that makes it special. The machine uses specialized computer code, or scripts, to continuously read snowpack data collected from the field, which it interprets and plugs into a geographic information system program — spitting out the color-coded, basin-by-basin maps uploaded onto the NRCS website.
Tama knows just how valuable the maps are to a number of agricultural groups, as well as state organizations.
“We heard from groups like the Oregon Water Resources Department and Washington State Department of Ecology. There were some individual irrigation districts we heard that responded to our state office employees, saying they were concerned about the maps not being available,” Tama said. “I think it’s fair to say there were dozens of users who responded, expressing concern.”
Snow is already starting to fly in the Oregon Cascades and Wallowa Mountains, though the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is calling for a 70 percent chance of above-average temperatures across much of the Pacific Northwest over the next three months, along with a 30-40 percent chance of below-average precipitation, thanks to El Niño in the Pacific Ocean. Those two factors combined could mean another lean snow year ahead.