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A Nevada professor’s invention has steered Western water supply for more than 100 years

A black-and-white image of a professor sitting in his office, reading a book.
Courtesy of UNR Special Collections
James Church in his office at the University of Nevada, Reno.

It’s a February morning in the mountains between Reno and Lake Tahoe, and I’m snowshoeing past towering green pine trees dusted with snow.

I reach an area of Mt. Rose where federal hydrologist Jeff Anderson is about to measure the snowpack.

“These are the snow tubes,” says Anderson as he assembles a blue metal tube that stretches more than 7 feet. “They’re basically a cookie cutter that will take a core of the snowpack.”

Anderson first weighs the tube without snow in it. Then he sticks the tube deep into the snowpack, pulls it out, and looks inside the end for soil.

“That tells us we hit the ground, we didn’t just hit an ice layer,” Anderson explains. “So, that looks pretty good. Now we’re gonna weigh it.”

The difference in the weight of the tube with snow gives Anderson an accurate measurement of how much water is in the snowpack, which is important for gauging water supplies for communities in the West.

“It contains 16.3 inches of water content,” Anderson says. “If we were to melt that down, that’s how much water should be on the ground.”

A man standing on a snow-covered mountain poses for a photo. Snowshoes are draped around his neck.
Courtesy of UNR Special Collections
James Church standing on the side of a mountain with snowshoes draped around his neck.

This tool and technique for measuring snow water was first used more than a century ago on this very mountain.

In the early 1900s, James Church was a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He taught classics, German and art history. Outside the classroom, he loved to be outside – in the mountains.

“He started to realize the importance snow had, and he understood how important snow was to the water supply,” Anderson says.

That propelled Church and researchers from the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station to build a weather observatory on the summit of Mt. Rose. Their goal was to better track snowfall and spring runoff data.

In the process, Church developed and patented a snow tube he called the Mt. Rose sampler. It’s the device still used by Anderson and hydrologists around the world.

“I think that speaks to, one, how hard it is to measure snow. And, two, what a good design it was,” said Adrian Harpold, a professor in environmental science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and somewhat of a Church historian.

Before Church created the Mt. Rose sampler, snowpack measurements focused on depth. His invention, however, showed how much water was in the snow and would end up in rivers and lakes.

A black-and-white image of two men on skis weighing a snow sampling tube on a mountainside.
Courtesy of UNR Special Collections
Two men on skis weigh a snow tube invented by Church to measure the amount of water in the snowpack.

“It’s a breakthrough that still resonates today, because if anything, the value of those predictions have only gone up over time,” Harpold says.

Mountain snowpacks are frozen reservoirs that slowly melt during spring and summer, and studies show human-caused climate change is shrinking them around the world.

Harpold says the snow science pioneered by Church does more than help water managers predict summertime water supplies for cities and farmers. It also allows emergency managers to forecast floods and droughts, which are becoming more frequent and severe in a warming world.

“The value of that small piece of metal that he invented is probably literally billions of dollars over the last 100 years,” Harpold says.

Back on Mt. Rose, as clouds swallow the sun and snow flurries float down, federal water master Chad Blanchard awaits the snowpack measurement results. Blanchard manages water levels and releases at four major reservoirs on the Truckee River, which supplies water to area’s cities, agriculture, and industry.

“This whole process of snow surveying is critical to managing water supplies throughout the West or throughout the world,” he says.

A man carrying a large blue pole on his right shoulder is smiling as he stands in the snow. He's surrounded by snow-covered trees.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Jeff Anderson, a hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, carries a tool used to measure the snowpack at Mt. Rose near Reno and Lake Tahoe on Feb. 8, 2024.

Church’s groundbreaking work in the early 1900s became the backbone of water management in the West, says Anderson, adding that “by the ‘20s, which is only like 10 years after he developed the snow tubes, it already spread to other states across the West.”

And in 1935, after a year of severe drought, the federal government created a Western snow survey and water supply forecasting program, based entirely on Church’s techniques.

“You know, I kind of see him as many people in the Tahoe region that want to somehow combine their passion for being outdoors with their career,” Anderson says. “And he did that.”

A century later, newer technologies can measure the amount of water in the snow crunching beneath my snowshoes. It can be done automatically at remote weather stations called SNOTEL sites.

But Anderson says Church laid the groundwork for modern snow science. And if the data needs to be double-checked, he still breaks out his trusty Mt. Rose sampler.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.

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