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RYAN PARK -- Passing by a house nearly covered in white drifts, Kevin Pantle stopped his snowmobile and pointed to a mound of snow.

"There's a car under there," he said.

Fifty-seven inches of snow blanketed Ryan Park in the Snowy Range on April 28 when Pantle and Chad Pickett took core samples of snow drifts, measuring both the depth of the snow and the amount of water frozen within. According to their measurements that morning, the amount of water was three times higher than the 30-year average for Ryan Park, located 55 miles west of Laramie at an elevation of 8,050 feet. Five more inches of snow fell that night.

Pantle and Pickett work for the Wyoming State Engineer's Office. As a hydrographer commissioner, Pantle monitors regulated creeks used for irrigation. Pickett, an acreage inspector, maps irrigated acres to determine where water is being used. They and other engineers from the state office are measuring snowpack around the state. Record levels cover several Wyoming mountain ranges, and towns below are planning for the worst.

From January through April, Pantle and Pickett measured sites in the Snowy Range and the Sierra Madres in Wyoming during the last week of each month. Numbers they collected tell how much snow remains and, more importantly, how much water is in the snow.

They use a long, hollow metal pole with edged blades to measure the snow depth and water content. The figures from each site are averaged to produce a snow estimate for the Upper North Platte Basin.

The engineer's office compares its findings to levels from past years. According to figures released Monday from the manual snow survey, the Upper North Platte Basin is 181 percent of the historical average. Automated measuring sites operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, meanwhile, put the number at 172 percent.

Automated measuring systems also record snow for the engineer's office, but this year's high snow levels disabled some of the sensors. That meant Pickett and Pantle needed to test those sites, too.

"There are equipment buildings there that are the size of an outhouse but are 15 feet tall, and you pull up to it and the top of the building is here," Pickett said, gesturing to his knee.

"You have to shovel down to get to the top door," Pantle added. "The top door is on the second floor to use during the winter."

Dale Kirkley owns the Rendezvous Lodge in Ryan Park, a tiny town with scattered summer houses and about 25 permanent residents. He welcomed the snow at first because his winter business relies heavily on snowmobilers. Now he's ready for it to stop. He's clocked 240 hours driving his six-foot John Deere snow blower this winter moving snow around his business and some houses. A pile by his lodge is 20 feet high.

"We are literally running out of places to put the snow," he said.

"With a blower, we can get it out of the way, but even with that, you can only blow the snow so high."

The drifts aren't the problem for towns below the mountains. It's the water that will flow from them.

Saratoga Mayor John Zeiger recently distributed 4,500 sandbags to residents and businesses and ordered 20,000 more. He met with both the Wyoming National Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss worst-case scenarios.

The Upper North Platte River runs unregulated through Saratoga until it hits Seminoe Reservoir. Last year's runoff, when snowpack was just 93 percent of the historic average, flooded isolated areas of the town.

"The National Weather Service is saying it could be like last year as far as flooding, but they're guessing it could be worse," said Zeiger, who is also Carbon County's emergency management coordinator.

Much of what happens this spring depends upon the weather. If temperatures warm slowly, snow will melt gradually and may not cause severe flooding. If temperatures rise too quickly, the snow will melt and rush downstream.

Experts are paying particular attention to Boozer Creek, a relatively unknown stream connected to the North Platte River. If the headgate doesn't hold there, the stream will turn into a temporary river channel over Saratoga's golf course and into the downtown, said Glen Leavengood, district manager for the Saratoga, Encampment and Rawlins Conservation District.

"We're bringing some rock in and have several landowners cooperating," Leavengood said.

Bill Ward lives on the southeast corner of town and saw some localized flooding on his property last year. He will prepare for the possibility this year, but will wait to see what happens before he starts to worry.

"We live in snow country. We expect snow," he said.

"It's hard to say what will happen until the water comes down."

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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