A large solar panel and two battery packs were stolen Sept. 10 or Sept. 11 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Services SNOTEL (snowpack telemetry) weather monitoring station on Geyser Pass about 10 miles from Moab, according to Randall Julander, an NRCS snow survey supervisor. During that same time, a 60-watt solar panel and a battery were also stolen from the La Sal Avalanche Center’s monitoring station at Gold Basin, about two miles from the SNOTEL site, said Ed Grote, who helps maintain that site as a volunteer for the Friends of the La Sal Avalanche Center. The La Sal Avalanche Center is operated by the National Forest Service through the Utah Avalanche Center.
In addition to the thefts, the wiring and other equipment were damaged at the SNOTEL site, Julander said. The cost to replace the solar panel and batteries totaled about $900, but repairing the wiring and other equipment at the facility will cost several hundred more, he said.
“By the time you add it all up, you’re into probably $2,000 or $3,000,” Julander said. “That money comes straight from the taxpayer’s pocket. All of us pay for it.”
He said the September theft marked the third time in the past five years that someone has stolen the solar panel at the site, but it was the first time the batteries were also taken.
The SNOTEL site monitors water levels and provides water supply information for local agriculture, water agencies and the recreationists such as ATV users, skiers and snowmobilers. It also tracks snow and moisture levels to help keep the public informed about up-to-date weather conditions in the mountains, Julander said.
“It’s completely remote and sends back data on an hourly basis,” he said. “That information allows us to make predictions about water levels.”
The NRCS just got the station back on line this week, on Oct. 2, Julander said.
“It now has a steel frame around it and we’ve installed some anti-theft additions to deter this kind of thing in the future,” Julander said. “But we’d like to ask the public to keep an eye out. If you see somebody hanging around there, or anything that looks suspicious, please report it.”
The theft at the La Sal Avalanche Center at Gold Basin was clearly planned in advance, Grote said.
“Our site has a tower that’s 20 to 30 feet tall. They had to have brought a harness to climb the tower and get the panel,” Grote said. He explained that the 60-watt solar panel was located near the top of the tower, and while the tower could be climbed without assistance, it would be virtually impossible to unbolt the panel and carry it back down without some kind of climbing assistance.
The wiring was not damaged at the avalanche center site, Grote said, and the cost to replace the panel and battery will likely be less than $1,000. But the station will remain offline until the panel and battery are replaced, he said.
The Forest Service is trying to acquire the funds to make the repairs, said Brian Murdock, recreation program manager for the Moab/Monticello District of the Forest Service.
“It’s an important piece of the avalanche center,” Murdock said. “We ‘re hoping to have the money to get it back up and running before winter.”
The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the thefts, and Forest Service law enforcement officers are also investigating, Murdock said.
Anyone who has information about the thefts is asked to call the Forest Service office in Moab at 435-259-7155.