Project Snowpack, Innovating Future Floodplain Weather Prediction

Historic flooding of the Upper Missouri River Basin in 2011 prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District to explore additional solutions in improving flood prediction. This led to the implementation of Project Snowpack, a multi-state and federal agency program that will revolutionize floodplain management throughout the region.

The project utilizes a network of mesonet stations, designed to observe mesoscale meteorological phenomena and microclimates to better understand local weather patterns. The stations are fitted with equipment that reports the soil moisture, ground temperature, snow depth, wind speed and direction, solar radiation, relative humidity, precipitation, and air temperature every five minutes along with cameras to capture variations in surrounding snow depth caused by snow drift.

people in front of computer monitor
SDSU Mesonet technicians and Mesonet Manager in SDSU mesonet office. Pictured left to right (Jim Pond, Samuel Peterson, Matthew Sanderson & Manager Nathaniel Edwards) (USACE photo by Makenzie Leonard)

The Omaha District’s Civil Works Design and Planning Branch was at the forefront of the effort in creating partnerships – public, private, and Tribal, who will work together to expand the network across five states. This includes providing the resources, connections and coordination for the project.

“We are essentially planning, designing and implementing [the project] all at once, which makes it both exciting and challenging at the same time,” said Carlie Hively, USACE project manager for Project Snowpack.

Project partners include meteorologists and technicians from the University of Montana, University of Wyoming, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, North Dakota State University and South Dakota State University.

technician examining weather instruments
SDSU technician Matthew Peterson checks the calibration on one of the precipitation monitoring instruments at the mesonet. (USACE photo by Makenzie Leonard)

Nathan Edwards, the mesonet operations manager at SDSU’s Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, explained that one of the hardest elements to monitor is water content in packed snow.

“Snow on the ground is just precipitation that has yet to actually fall,” Edwards said. “Without knowing the depth of snow across the upper Missouri basin, snowmelt predictions can have a wide margin of error. In the past we have always worked to track precipitation, and now with these new monitors, being able to extend that into the winter is a big step forward.”

Project Snowpack is in the process of building one mesonet station every 500 square miles across the Upper Missouri River Basin, covering rural areas that previously had no local forecasting available. The stations provide readings (data-sets) every five minutes, improving emergency response times for severe weather emergencies such as flash flooding and tornadoes.

weather station
Newly completed Mesonet Weather Station on the Lower Brule Sioux tribal reservation in South Dakota. Pictured are the wind speed, solar radiation, and snow depth monitors. This station is a part of the network of weather stations built as part of Project Snowpack.(USACE photo by Makenzie Leonard)

“Weather is something that impacts every single South Dakotan. It has been so rewarding to give South Dakotans the weather monitoring they deserve,” Edwards added.

The project will also provide valuable insight to improve agriculture through wind, temperature and humidity monitoring. Tracking these conditions assists agriculturists in planning for range movement, best times to plant and fertilize crops, and identification of drought conditions.

“Partnership between USACE, SDSU and the other universities involved in the project ensures the successful ongoing implementation of Project Snowpack,” said John Remus, Chief of the USACE Missouri River Basin Water Management Division. “The states played a really big role in the technical part of planning this and they’re playing a huge role in implementing it.”

According to Remus, the utilization of existing centers of expertise like the universities is “a great example of having the right people do what they do best.”

people work on weather station
Newly completed Mesonet Weather Station on the Lower Brule Sioux tribal reservation in South Dakota. This station is a part of the network of weather stations built as part of Project Snowpack. (USACE photo by Makenzie Leonard)

Mesonet stations that were installed prior to USACE’s involvement have now been updated with ultra-modern monitoring technology; and the continued implementation is now federally funded as part of the project.

To date, approximately 170 mesonet stations have been installed and the data provided is available for federal, state and local agencies to use.

In its completed state, the data pulled from the network will allow USACE to better plan dam retention and water releases to help mitigate flooding, Remus explained. Even more importantly is how the data will bolster the planning for flood fighting efforts. Knowing where flood fighting will likely be needed allows USACE and its partners to better position resources to be available where they are needed most, he added.

The project is expected to be completed in 2027 and will include 540 mesonet weather stations across the entire Upper Missouri River Basin covering 270,000 contiguous square-miles, making it the largest network of its kind worldwide.

Big Bend Dam Reservoir
Big Bend Dam Reservoir viewed from Good Soldier Park in Lower Brule, SD. (USACE photo by Makenzie Leonard)

“Although the targeted users [of this project] are the Army Corps of Engineers and its Northwestern Division water reservoir management group, as well as other federal agencies, the benefits get really broad really fast,” Hively said. “It will provide benefits to the agricultural industry, forest and stream management, and researchers will have a ton of fun with all the data that this is providing, not to mention the benefits to climate resiliency itself.”

From the benefits it will provide to future flood and drought mitigation efforts, to improving the lives of agriculturists and rural communities at large, Project Snowpack is going to make a world of difference along the entire upper Missouri River Basin.