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LCRA Joins NASA Mission

Lower Colorado River Authority

Understanding moisture levels in the soil can help us better monitor droughts and manage floods.

The Lower Colorado River Authority has teamed up with the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT-Austin to collect soil moisture data.  It’s part of the Texas Soil Observation Network and NASA’s first Soil Moisture Active Passive mission or SMAP.



Network of Sensors to Help Monitor Droughts, Predict Floods

FREDERICKSBURG, Texas – In an effort to obtain additional insight to use in monitoring droughts and managing floods, the Lower Colorado River Authority will look to space to get a better view of conditions below the Earth’s surface.

LCRA has teamed up with The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences to collect soil moisture data as part of the Texas Soil Observation Network and NASA’s first Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission. NASA launched its SMAP satellite on Jan. 31 to map soil moisture around the world for the first time.

As part of the mission, new LCRA Hydromet soil moisture sensors in the ground near Fredericksburg will help scientists confirm the satellite data. The LCRA Hydromet is a network of more than 270 weather and river gauges in the lower Colorado River basin from the Texas Hill Country to the Gulf Coast.

“We’re on the cutting edge of technology,” said Ron Anderson, LCRA Water Resource Management chief engineer. “There are numerous stream and rain gauges in the lower Colorado River basin, but up until now there has been no way to measure soil moisture accurately – a missing component in forecasting the impact of droughts or managing floods. Leveraging this technology may provide a model for the state and the nation for how soil moisture data is used in water planning.”

The soil moisture information can be found on the Texas Soil Observation Network webpage.

In summer 2014, LCRA and UT researchers installed soil moisture sensors at various depths at eight LCRA Hydromet gauges near Fredericksburg in Gillespie County. The LCRA sensors and others around the world will help verify information collected from the satellite. At the same time, the satellite will fill in the gap between the ground networks to map soil moisture across the globe.

NASA says the SMAP program will provide a greater understanding of Earth’s water cycle – an understanding that can help provide early warnings of droughts, improve flood warnings and assist in crop productivity. The $916 million NASA satellite launched Saturday and will orbit Earth once every 98.5 minutes for at least three years.

The satellite images are expected to provide the most accurate and highest resolution maps of soil moisture ever obtained.

The impacts of droughts and floods are linked to soil moisture conditions. When soil is saturated, rain runs off more quickly. When soil is dry – as it has been during this prolonged drought in the Texas Hill Country – the moisture must be replaced before water can run off into nearby streams and eventually into the Highland Lakes in the lower Colorado River basin.

LCRA water managers plan to use the ground- and satellite-based soil moisture data to help forecast future water supply.

John Hofmann, LCRA executive vice president of Water, said: “This project encompasses two of our missions – flood management and water supply. Information about soil moisture is critically important not just during droughts, but also during floods. We can get the same amount of rain and have different results in terms of flooding and water flowing into the lakes based on the soil moisture or lack of soil moisture. This will give us scientific data on soil moisture for the first time.’’

LCRA is managing Central Texas’ primary water supply through an ongoing severe drought. Many times over the last few years the region received significant rain, but saw only a trickle of runoff into the Highland Lakes because of the extremely parched soil. The new data will help LCRA and others better predict runoff, allowing more accurate forecasts of drought, flooding and the region’s future water supply.

“History has shown that severe droughts, such as the one we’re in now, are often broken not by a series of small rain events, but by a massive flood,” Hofmann said. “We stand ready to manage both, and it’s important we have the best tools available to monitor both situations. The soil moisture data is an important addition to our toolkit.”

About LCRA

The Lower Colorado River Authority serves customers and communities throughout Texas by managing the lower Colorado River; generating, delivering and transmitting electric power; ensuring a clean, reliable water supply; and offering access to nature at more than 40​ parks, recreation areas and river access sites along the Texas Colorado River, from the Hill Country to the Gulf Coast. LCRA and its employees are committed to enhancing the life of Texans through water stewardship, energy and community services. LCRA – a nonprofit public service agency created by the Texas Legislature – cannot levy taxes or receive tax money. For more information, visit www.lcra.org.

Steve joined the Texas Public Radio news team in 2009, and serves as TPR's Assistant News Director and afternoon anchor. You can hear him Monday-Friday from 3-7pm on KSTX 89.1 FM. Steve is a veteran of radio news in South Texas, having worked for commercial stations in the San Antonio area since the late 1980s.