The platform, OpenET, uses satellite imagery from the Landsat program, a decades-long project of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey that records human and natural impacts on Earth's surface. Specifically, it provides data for 17 western states — down to the quarter-acre — on how much evapotranspiration has taken place.
The U.S. west has been mired in drought for more than two decades. Water levels at key reservoirs on the Colorado River have fallen to historic lows alongside growing demand, prompting the federal government to declare water cuts for some states next year. A blazing summer and years of record-breaking wildfires have also zapped moisture from the ground.
Detailed information on soil moisture could help farmers and water managers better plan during dry conditions and reduce how much water is used for irrigation.
"Farmers and water managers have not had consistent, timely data on one of the most important pieces of information for managing water, which is the amount of water that's consumed by crops and other plants as they grow," said Robyn Grimm, a water specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped NASA develop the tool alongside other environmental groups and Google. "To date, that data has been expensive and fragmented."
Many large farms in dry areas, such as California's Central Valley, already have years of experience using advanced data systems to measure evapotranspiration and other water metrics that influence their growing and harvesting seasons and watering schedules.
NASA said the platform includes historical data dating back to 1984. In coming months, it will be updated to include information about precipitation rates with the same level of detail. Eventually, the tool will extend to other parts of the U.S., including areas around the Mississippi River and Appalachian region, scientists said.