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The Nebraska Mesonet system, once the envy of the nation, has fallen on hard times because of uncertain funding/
LINCOLN — Restoring adequate funding for a network of weather monitoring stations across Nebraska, which was once a model for the nation, is gaining some momentum.
At one time, the Nebraska Mesonet program boasted 81 weather-monitoring stations across the state, but that has dropped to 63 active locations now because of erratic and declining funding.
Now a recent series of meetings involving agriculture groups, meteorologists and university researchers has those involved in the system voicing some optimism that state funding, in the neighborhood of $2 million a year, can be found.
‘A Ton of Interest’
“People really want the data — there’s a ton of interest in it,” said Ruben Behnke, who was hired as director of the system in June. “I’m trying to continue that momentum.”
Ken Herz, a former president of the Nebraska Cattlemen and an advocate for the system, said that once people become aware of what the Mesonet system is and who it benefits, there’s a lot of support for it.
“This information is critical to a lot of segments of Nebraska,” said Herz, who farms and raises cattle near Lawrence.
What Is a Mesonet System?
A Mesonet system is a series of high-tech weather stations, stationed strategically across a state, that provides current data on precipitation, wind speeds, humidity, solar radiation and temperature inversions. The stations also can provide moisture levels and temperatures in soils at various depths, helping farmers determine when to plant and when to irrigate, and help determine whether sprayed chemicals will drift.
“Mesonet” is a combination of the words “mesoscale” — a meteorology term — and “network.” The densely arranged system of weather stations can give a heads up on “mesoscale” events like thunderstorms, wind gusts, heatbursts and drylines that might go undetected by a less dense array of sensors.
Besides individual farmers and livestock producers, the data is used by numerous agencies, from the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the National Drought Mitigation Center, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and the Nebraska Extension Service.
That sentiment was echoed by State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, who sought $550,000 a year funding for the system during the 2023 legislative session.
Dorn, a farmer and a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, didn’t push for passage of his Legislative Bill 401 this year, instead opting for an interim study to better develop a long-range plan to consistently fund the weather-monitoring network.
How Big a System?
The senator said the state needs to determine how much of a mesonet system it needs, how best to ensure coverage of the entire state and how much it can afford “so we’re not just throwing a million dollars out there.”
“We too often in Nebraska allocate money and say ‘Go out there and plan something,'” Dorn said. “We need to plan for the long term.”
Behnke said he’d like to see up to 200 stations across Nebraska, located so that no one area is more than 15 miles from a mesonet site.
That would make Nebraska somewhat similar to the mesonet system in place in Oklahoma, viewed as one of the best in the country. The Sooner State spends about $2 million a year — a combination of state funds and university grants — to maintain a system of 120 stations strategically located across the state, about 20 miles apart.
The monitoring stations aren’t cheap — a new station can cost up to $40,000 to install, depending on its sophistication. Plus, there are annual costs for maintenance and calibrating the high-tech instruments.
‘A Rather Small Investment’
Even so, Chris Fiebrich, the director of the Oklahoma Mesonet, said that such a system is a “rather small investment” for data that can help farmers determine when to plant and when to irrigate, help firefighters determine how best to discern shifting winds when battling a wildfire, and provide weather forecasters and school superintendents with better data about approaching, inclement weather.
“It’s easy to show the dividends of the network. It’s just hard to get the stable dollars to show up every year,” Fiebrich said.
It’s a problem nationwide, he said, for the roughly 25 states that have mesonets.
The Nebraska Mesonet system was first established in 1981 and was one of the first in the country.
Initially, it had five monitoring stations, but, due to funding challenges and inconsistent placement of stations, has never achieved its optimum coverage.
Nebraska once had 81 monitoring stations, funded by a variety of state, university and local sources. But that number dropped to 55 a year ago, after some of the stations were closed due to lack of maintenance dollars.
Now the system has 63 stations, in large part because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed six new monitoring stations north of the Niobrara River to help gauge runoff from melting snow into the Missouri River.
New Stations Planned
Behnke said that the Army Corps plans to install a total of 35 stations in Nebraska, as part of a monitoring program in five Missouri River states. The Corps has also pledged to provide funding for maintenance through 2027.
But, Behnke said, what Nebraska needs is a network of stations that adequately blankets the entire state and a funding stream that will ensure that new stations are not only installed but also maintained through the years.
In the past, funding for the mesonet system has been complicated and unstable, said Don Wilhite, a professor emeritus in drought/climate science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
New stations were sponsored by entities such as the state’s natural resources districts, Wilhite said, but maintenance was left with UNL, where budget cutbacks forced some of the stations to be shut down last year.
The stations were located where sponsors existed, so there wasn’t a systematic grid of weather stations across the state.
Behnke said that typically, they have located on state school lands — the section on each township set aside for a public school. But if new stations are to be added in eastern Nebraska, other sites might have to be found, he said.
Data in Close Proximity Critical
Getting precise weather data in close proximity to a ranch or farm can be critical in determining whether, for instance, an area can qualify for federal drought relief programs.
Former State Sen. Al Davis, who owns a ranch near Hyannis, said his operation once failed to qualify for drought aid because the nearest weather data was coming from Valentine, more than 50 miles away, where plenty of rain had fallen, instead of near his ranch, which was in a drought area.
Herz said that at his farm near Lawrence, the closest mesonet station is 30 miles away, and the next closest is 60 miles — and the USDA wants data from the four closest weather stations.
“Accurate collection of rainfall data is really important,” Herz said.
Getting weather information from a station in close proximity is critical, he added, in determining when to conduct controlled burns of pastures, detecting wind shifts in battling a wild fire or assessing an approaching snowstorm in deciding whether a school needs to cancel classes.
Davis, who now lobbies for the Sierra Club, said the Nebraska Mesonet system can also provide critical data in tracking climate change and might even be used to determine when there’s too much smoke or pollution in the atmosphere.
Dorn, the state senator, said he has been encouraged by the large turnout at “working group” meetings that have been held about the mesonet issue.
What happens next is deciding how large a mesonet system is needed in Nebraska, he said, and then, during the 2024 legislative session, if the Legislature and other entities will fund it.
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