RENO – The Desert Research Institute is part of a new technology project to enable western U.S. farmers and local water managers to better manage water use. The result of the project is a web application called OpenET, which uses cloud computing to track water consumption by crops and other vegetation using data from satellites and weather stations.
“After 10 years of working with farmers and water agencies to develop ET estimates, it couldn’t be more rewarding to be creating an application like OpenET that uses best available science and makes ET data much more affordable and accessible to all,” said Justin Huntington, a research professor at DRI. “We also see OpenET having the potential to scale up to other regions of the world, including South America and Africa.”
According to a news release about the project, the ET in OpenET is short for evapotranspiration — the process by which water evaporates from the land surface and transpires from plants. Evapotranspiration, a key measure of water consumed by crops and vegetation, can be tracked by satellites because the process cools plants and soil down, so irrigated fields appear cooler in satellite images.
DRI worked on the project with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), NASA, and Google. Together, and using input from more than 100 stakeholders from throughout the West, the team solved a problem many farmers and decision-makers have faced when evaluating water supplies: a lack of access to accurate, timely satellite-based data.
“OpenET will help fill one of the biggest data gaps in water management in the western United States. Our primary goal is to make sure we are providing evapotranspiration data that is accurate, consistent, scientifically based and useful for water management, whether for an individual agricultural field or an entire river basin,” said Forrest Melton, program scientist for the NASA Western Water Applications Office. “OpenET is being created through an innovative collaboration among a national team of scientists, technology experts, farmers, government policy-makers and environmental nonprofits.”
Applications of OpenET data include:
- Informing irrigation management and scheduling practices to maximize “crop per drop” and reduce costs for water and fertilizer.
- Enabling water and land managers to develop more accurate water budgets and innovative management programs that promote adequate water supplies for agriculture, people and ecosystems.
- Supporting groundwater management, water trading and conservation programs that increase the economic viability of agriculture across the West.
Project organizers say OpenET will initially provide field-scale ET data in 17 states, with plans to expand to the entire United States and beyond. States include Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.