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Filling the Biggest Data Gap in Water Management

Water supplies in the western U.S. are under increasing pressure due to population growth and a changing climate. Accurate, timely data on the amount of water used to grow food is vital to decision-making by farmers and water managers alike. Today, access to this information is fragmented and often expensive, keeping it out of the hands of many and creating a critical information gap affecting how, and how much, water is used in agriculture.

This situation will change through a unique partnership that includes NASA, Google, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Desert Research Institute. Partners are creating a web application, slated to launch in 2021, that uses data from satellites and weather stations to track water consumption by crops and other vegetation. Called OpenET, this program draws on advanced science and breakthroughs in computing power to provide ready access to public information that can support better decisions and promote transparency in managing water resources.

OpenET tracks evapotranspiration, the process by which water evaporates from the land surface and transpires from plants. It is a key measure of water consumed by crops and vegetation, and it can be charted by satellites because the process cools plants and soil down – irrigated fields appear cooler in satellite images.

This web application can help nurture a more resilient future for agriculture, tracking the amount of evapotranspiration that is reduced when farmers change cropping patterns, invest in new technologies, or adopt water-saving practices. It can enable water and land managers to develop more accurate water budgets and inform new approaches that promote adequate water supplies for farms, people, and ecosystems.

Data will initially be provided in 17 states, with plans to expand to the entire nation – and  potential to scale to other regions of the world including South America and Africa. The development of OpenET comes at a pivotal time in California, as local agencies take steps to balance groundwater budgets and comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation helped seed the historic partnership between NASA, Google, the Environmental Defense Fund, and research partners that led to OpenET and is among several philanthropies, public agencies, and project participants supporting this innovation today.

Read the OpenET press release from September 15, 2020.

Visit the OpenET website