KIMBERLY • When Rick Allen was first asked to help research Idaho’s water use, he turned to outer space.
It was an unusual move in 2000. Not too many other states were aware at the time that they could use satellite images to track the precious resource. But jump forward to today, and Allen’s vision is now the foundation for managing water across the West.
Allen is a water resource engineer for the University of Idaho’s Kimberly Research and Extension Center. He’s also known as the state’s lead researcher on NASA’s Landsat satellites. The devices are used to measure climate changes and water evaporation from irrigated agriculture.
Allen considers the satellite’s images critical to fairly managing the state’s limited water supply. But as he helps advise other western states on how to use the satellite information, he’s facing resistance for funding future Landsat satellites from Congress.
“The downside to this technology is that it’s not cheap,” Allen said. “It cost $1 billion to research and build Landsat 8.”
The satellites are designed to be in orbit for five years. This means that development on Landsat 9 must being immediately. And while scientists need $125 million to cover the costs in 2013, Allen is uneasy if NASA and the rest of the research team are going to receive it.
There are currently two Landsat satellites in orbit, sending images back to earth every 16 days. The newest Landsat is set to launch next January.
“It’s exciting to see an image come alive,” Allen said. “But these images are also necessary because you can’t manage water rights without being able to measure the water.”
One pixel from the satellite covers 30 meters, allowing researchers to identify very specific locations such as field boundaries.
By taking a thermal temperature of the earth’s surface, researchers can quantify water use, said Bill Kramber, a senior analyst for the Idaho Department of Water Resources.
“IDWR uses Landsat for a variety of projects,” he said. “Currently we use it to verify water rights. We can check if a water right is being properly irrigated or not.”
The satellite’s value primarily stems from the continuous information it provides, Allen said. Researchers have catalogued images for the past 30 years. This has allowed agencies and court systems to rely on the information when settling water disputes or land-use conflicts.
“Idaho water is under tension,” Allen said. “The more users we have, the more people desire better information. This levels out the playing field.”
This week, Allen will travel to Washington, D.C., to encourage lawmakers to continue to fund future Landsat projects.
“I’m a researcher but I will continue to advocate for this project,” Allen said. “We’ve been pushing hard but it’s uncertain if we’re going to succeed.”