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Funding for weather stations that provide critical data is under threat

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Across the U.S., networks of weather monitors known as mesonets record data for farmers, researchers and emergency responders. This information is vital when it comes to issuing storm warnings and understanding climate science. But financing for many state mesonets is on shaky ground. Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert reports.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: When you check a weather forecast, do you ever think about where that information comes from? If you're in southeast Nebraska, you can find one source off a gravel road.

REGAN KERKMAN: We're just in a little pasture field just north of Valparaiso by our weather station.

REMBERT: That's Regan Kerkman. He's braving a cold, windy day to check on the site.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

REMBERT: He opens a green gate to approach what looks like a tall, metal tripod.

KERKMAN: We have two sensors to collect rain. And one of them measures snowfall. We have wind speed and direction, measures the sun.

REMBERT: It does a lot. And it's only one of dozens across the state. The stations record data every minute of every day.

MARTHA DURR: I think there's 1,440 minutes in a day. So we've got that many observations.

REMBERT: That's Martha Durr, Nebraska's climatologist. She says all that data goes off to farmers and ranchers, researchers, emergency managers, the National Weather Service. The list goes on. But it's all happening on much less funding than is needed. In Nebraska, it's gotten so bad that Durr closed down five stations last year, even as the state battled deep drought.

DURR: We kind of run on a skeleton shop right now, just scraping by, I would (laughter) call it.

REMBERT: Nebraska's not alone. For example, Missouri also faces funding challenges, while Kansas grapples with inconsistent grant support for any extra staff. And in Illinois, manager Jennie Atkins says hodgepodge funding has limited her program to just 19 stations covering the entire state.

JENNIE ATKINS: The real issue for us is that we're not growing. These 19 stations are great. And they're doing everything they can. But they're only 19 stations.

REMBERT: She says they've missed intense wind and rainstorms. It's a similar story in Nebraska, where Dennis Schueth manages a natural resource district. His team uses mesonet data to conserve groundwater by setting irrigation limits.

DENNIS SCHUETH: We use that as a tool to show that, you know, you may have over-irrigated. Or you may be under-irrigated. Or maybe you're just right.

REMBERT: But now they're doing it with a lot less information. Schueth's district lost four of its five nearby stations, leaving farmers relying on less accurate data.

SCHUETH: It's just kind of disappointing. Numerous state agencies, elected officials say that water is such an important deal. But then we end up that we don't want to fund it.

REMBERT: But one state has put its money where its mouth is. Oklahoma's mesonet gets about half its funding from the state government. Director Chris Fiebrich says the support means he doesn't have to agonize over things like making payroll or keeping the lights on.

CHRIS FIEBRICH: We can have our staff looking at new technologies. We can have them developing new models, developing new products.

REMBERT: It makes all the difference in responding to storms, growing crops and adapting to climate change. But right now, that's a pipe dream for some state systems.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUCH'S "NAH DRAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Rembert