Snow-Blindness on the Potomac

The Reagan Administration is trying to pull a snow job on Western water interests.

In its search for every possible budget cut the Administration has proposed elimination of the Soil Conservation Service's snow survey and water-supply-forecasting program at a saving of less than $4 million. The President's budget proposed a $2.6-million appropriation for the survey during a phase-out year in fiscal 1986 and nothing there-after, arguing that private business and state and local government could do the job just as well.

This is one of those penny-wise and pound-foolish budget decisions that, if the uproar created among the program's supporters is any indication, will be quickly rescinded. And should be.

A federal study conducted several years ago, when a similar proposal was made, found that the program had a 20-1 cost-benefit ratio. In other words, the program paid off with $20 worth of benefits for every dollar invested--something almost unheard of in the federal establishment.

This is no surprise. The snow survey is indispensable to the management of dams and reservoirs throughout the country, particularly in the mountainous West. During the winter and early spring months, the Soil Conservation Service collects mountain-snowpack data from a variety of federal, state and local agencies and then computes the expected spring runoff on major watercourses. The data are used to calculate necessary flood-control releases of water from reservoirs and the runoff available for irrigation water through the summer.

The California Department of Water Resources, with the help of agencies like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, conducts most of the snow-survey work in this state. But cancellation of the national program would have had a dramatic effect in Southern California because of its reliance on the flow of the Colorado River. The winter snowpack in the Colorado and Wyoming Rockies, for instance, has a direct bearing on the flow of the river and the availability of its water for Arizona and California. Accurate predictions of the runoff will become even more critical in the future as California relies increasingly on supplies generated by the banking of excess Colorado flow in reservoirs like Glen Canyon and Lake Mead.

The Administration proposal was a master stroke of bad timing, coming on the heels of two years of flooding on the lower Colorado because of high snowmelt. The snow-survey program pays off in a variety of ways, including flood-damage control and scientific management of water resources. More work is needed in this field, not less, and the federal agencies now involved in the program are the appropriate ones for the task.

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