Montana tech keeps tabs on droughts

With 41 counties recently upgraded to "severe drought status" by the governor's office, the need for real-time information has propelled Montana to use sophisticated technology to help citizens stay informed.

The Montana Drought Advisory Committee (nris.state.mt.us/drought), a division of the Natural Resource Information System, has implemented a drought monitoring system that provides real-time tracking of water measurements from primary snowfall on mountains to underground reserves.

A statewide network of measuring stations relays detailed, calculated measurements that are taken every 15 minutes and made available 24 hours a day on the committee's Web site.

"One of the most dramatic changes has been not just the improved acquisition of knowledge about the situation, but the ability to really take the knowledge to the people," said Jesse Aber, water resources planner at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. "And that ability is largely because of the Internet. The technology has gone rather quickly from one of those drums that has a needle in it to state-of-the-art electronic information transfer equipment."

James Greene, administrator for Montana Disaster and Emergency Services, said an electronic system has been in place for several years, but advancements in technology, the prospect of worsening droughts and lessons learned from last summer's wildfires sparked a drive to improve the drought information system.

Greene also credited large-scale cooperation as key to the success of the program. The local branch of the National Weather Service, for example, is using geographic information systems to produce a detailed map of rainfall measurements from 400 stations statewide.

In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Army Corps of Engineers have become involved, as well as a host of state agencies, the governor's office and the state legislature, which has been helpful in appropriating funds.

"There's been a tremendous amount of cooperation on this one," Greene said.

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