Earth Week Day 3: Snowpack & Water Supply

Water is essential for all aspects of life in the Ruby Valley. The work we do at the Ruby Valley Conservation District is centered around keeping our water resources healthy and available.

Today’s activities will focus on where our water supply comes from, what “snowpack” means, work the RVCD is doing to monitor our water resources, and the importance of snowpack and water supply in Southwest Montana.


So, what is snowpack?

Here in the Ruby Valley we are a snowmelt-dominated system. This means that our water supply is primarily dependent on snow! As snow melts, it enters tributaries of the Ruby, the Ruby, and the groundwater system as natural flow. The earlier the snow melts and the less snow we get, the less water available later in the summer. If snow in the mountains persists longer into spring and gradually melts, it can provide a more steady water supply throughout summer. This “source” of snow is called snowpack.


The accumulation of snow in layers from multiple snowfall events that compacts and does not melt until spring temperatures rise above freezing. When snowpack melts, it becomes snowmelt; snowpack is a water supply for the Ruby River.

Our friends at the Gallatin Watershed Council did a cool experiment demonstrating snowpack and it’s evolution into snowmelt and water in our streams and rivers. The amount of water in snowpack is called snow water equivalent (SWE).


(SWE) A common snowpack measurement, SWE is the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack. It is the depth of water that would be left in a cylindrical container (a “can”) of snow if it were to completely melt.

Conduct your own snowpack experiment by following the experiment below! You might have to search for snow, but there are plenty of shady areas holding onto snow.


Tracking Snowpack in the Ruby Watershed

How do we measure snowpack in our systems? The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) uses Sno Tel or Snow Telemetry sites to track factors such as snowpack in the mountains surrounding the Ruby Valley. This data is translated into snow water equivalent to see how much water is stored in our snowpack and will be available for warmer months. NRCS has a series of extremely detailed interactive maps and graphs to track basin conditions that are updated daily. These can give you information on water supply, river basin conditions, and state wide conditions by the day, week, and month. Check out their resources below…


A series of automated, remote, high-elevation monitoring sites for mountain watersheds in the U.S. They collect data on precipitation, snowpack, temperature, and other climatic factors and are maintained by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. There are 5 SnoTel sites used to track conditions in the Ruby Valley.

NRCS Resources

Interactive Sub-Basin Snow Water Equivalent Map (% of normal)

Jefferson Daily Summary | NRCS Montana (

Interactive Snow Water Equivalent Graph

Snow Water Equivalent in Ruby | NRCS Montana (


Discover Water: Educational Resource for All Ages

If you would like to learn more about freshwater resources and the function of watersheds, check out Project WET’s Discover Water tool. Project WET is an international organization focused on developing water education materials. They are an incredible resource for integrating water education into curriculum and home learning. Their interactive tool, Discover Water, is a great way to introduce yourself and your family to concepts surrounding water.

We recommend exploring all the modules, but Explore Watersheds, Investigate Fresh Water, and The Water Cycle are great places to start!

Learn about Water Discover Water Project WET


Water Quality Monitoring in the Valley

One ongoing project at the RVCD is a water quality monitoring program. Throughout the valley we have 26 monitoring sites on tributaries to the Ruby River and the Ruby itself. Streams we monitor include Alder Gulch, Clear Creek, California Creek, Indian Creek, Mill Creek, Ramshorn Creek, and Wisconsin Creek. View the map of monitoring sites here: Water Quality Monitoring | Ruby Valley Conservation District (

These stations collect hourly data on stream temperature and discharge. Stream discharge is streamflow, or the amount of water flowing past a certain point in a stream at a given point in time. We use pressure transducers to measure streamflow. We have been collecting this data for four years! We hope to use the data to identify dewatered reaches and develop plans to mitigate their effects on stream health. The temperature data will be used to inform temperature mitigation projects in the valley. Lowering the temperatures of tributaries that show problematically high temperatures will help decrease the temperature of the Ruby. Temperature typically becomes a problem for trout health and survival above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. As water temperature increases, the amount of dissolved oxygen available in water decreases and fish become stressed. This is why we often see hoot owl closures.

This summer we are looking for volunteers to help us with this program!

As a volunteer your time commitment is flexible, with one technical training day and one to two days a month minimum of monitoring throughout the summer. Ultimately, you will be outside learning about water quality monitoring and enjoying the beauty of the Ruby Valley. If you are interested in receiving more information about volunteering with us, please email

Our friends in the Madison Valley have a volunteer “Stream Team” that has been around since 2010! They have collected an incredible amount of data that will be used to better understand the watershed and identify concerns that can be mitigated by conservation and restoration activities. Our goal is to have a similar program to this one! Learn more about why volunteer water quality monitoring is so important by watching their video!


Importance of Snowpack in Southwest Montana with Lucas Zukiewicz, NRCS Water Supply Specialist

To wrap up today, tune into the Ruby Watershed Council meeting where we will hear from NRCS Water Supply Specialist, Lucas Zukiewicz, about the importance of snowpack in Southwest Montana and the implications of this year’s snowpack. He will present at 6pm via WebEx. Find the link to the presentation on our website: Ruby Valley Conservation District (

If you miss the Ruby Watershed Council meeting, a recording will be available a few days after the presentation under the event on our calendar page. Join us tomorrow for Earth Day and celebrate with a unique Ruby Valley Scavenger Hunt!