NASA launches tool that measures Western water loss

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NASA launched Thursday an online platform that provides information about how much water is lost to the atmosphere by plants, soils, and other surfaces in the U.S. West. This data could be used to help water managers, farmers, and state officials better manage the region's resources.

OpenET uses satellite imagery from NASA's Landsat program. This decades-old project by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey records natural and human impacts on Earth's surface.

It provides information for 17 Western states down to quarter-acre on how much evapotranspiration took place. This is the process where moisture from leaves, soil, and other surfaces evaporates into air.

Since more than 20 years, the West has been suffering from drought. Scientists believe that human-caused climate changes have exacerbated the drought. The Colorado River's water levels have dropped to an all-time low, and growing demand has prompted the federal government to announce water cuts in some states for next year. The ground has also been wiped dry by a scorching summer and years of record-breaking wildfires.

NASA scientists spoke to reporters on Thursday, saying that detailed information about soil moisture could be used by farmers and water managers to better plan for dry conditions and decrease irrigation water use.

Robyn Grimm, a water specialist at the Environmental Defense Fund who helped NASA create the tool along with other environmental groups and Google, stated that "farmers and water managers don't have consistent, timely information on one of the most essential pieces of information to manage water."

She stated, "To date that data has been costly and fragmented."

Large farms located in dry areas such as California's Central Valley have decades of experience with advanced data systems that measure evapotranspiration, and other water metrics that affect their growing and harvesting seasons, and watering schedules.

Cannon Michael owns a 11,000-acre (4.452 hectares) farm in Merced County that produces tomatoes, melons and alfalfa. Michael stated that he had looked at NASA's new platform but did not believe it would bring any additional benefits to his farm.

He said, "We closely monitor our water use." "Our farm is 75% drip-irrigated, and we have a detailed scheduling and forecasting system in place."

Joe Stanko, a Colorado rancher from Steamboat Springs, had seen the tool in a magazine. Her family raises hay for cattle and the platform could help them identify which fields require more water to replenish their soil. They could also use it to decide when to harvest the hay.

NASA stated that the platform contains historical data going back to 1984. It will be updated in the coming months to include information on precipitation rates with the exact same level of detail. Scientists said that the tool would eventually be extended to other areas of the U.S.A., such as the Mississippi River region and the Appalachian region.

Further Evapotranspiration: Monitoring water use

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