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Soil moisture and plains snowpack measurement gets an upgrade

How South Dakota measures soil moisture and snowpack is getting a major upgrade. Construction is beginning on a new SDSU Mesonet moisture measurement network across the state.

Nathan Edwards, Ph.D., is the operations manager with South Dakota Mesonet. He said there are currently 30 systems.

"This is part of an expansion across parts of seven states. 97% of South Dakotans will be within 20 miles of one of these stations when we're done," Edwards said. "South Dakota is slated to get 151 stations total of this type."

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, Gov. Noem, SDSU officials, a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other stakeholders celebrated the expansion of the program during a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday at the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls.

Sen. Rounds advocated for the technology after South Dakota's 2011 flood. He said the Army Corps of Engineers will greatly benefit from the technology.

"They don't have enough data to be able to appropriately forecast how much water is going to come into the Missouri River," Rounds said. "They do a good job on the mountainside, but not on the plains. And so what we asked them for was the ability to actually put in forecasting stations."

What makes the tool unique is that it measures plains snowpack and moisture in the soil. In the spring when the land thaws and snow melts, that moisture can become a problem.

Knowing how much moisture is in the ground and on the land makes flood mitigation and dam management much easier, said Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Mark Himes.

"There are practical applications when we talk about flood risk management and drought resiliency. And then there are also long-term benefits to research and analysis from the data that these sites will provide," said Colonel Himes.

Gov. Kristi Noem said the new tool would have made the flooding of 2019 much more manageable. Noem said the data will benefit the agriculture and tourism industries the greatest.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will monitor the infrastructure.

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Joshua Haiar
The Mesonet at the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.