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Oklahoma Hydronet aims to track aquifer levels in real-time across the state

Researchers from Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma prepare to install new soil water content sensors at an Oklahoma Mesonet site as part of the Oklahoma Hydronet initiative.
OSU Agriculture
Researchers from Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma prepare to install new soil water content sensors at an Oklahoma Mesonet site as part of the Oklahoma Hydronet initiative.

Do you know exactly how much water is in the nearest lake right now? How about your well, or your city’s wells and reservoirs? Or how much water is held in the soil of your garden or field?

Researchers at Oklahoma State University are developing a tool that could let you find out — the Oklahoma Hydronet.

One of those researchers is Tyson Ochsner, a physicist and hydrologist at OSU. The idea for the Hydronet arose as he worked with a farmer in Southwest Oklahoma to install soil moisture sensors for smart irrigation, only to have the crops fail anyway.

“There wasn't enough water in the aquifer to irrigate the crop all the way to the end of the season,” Ochsner said. “But he didn't know that in advance. We don't have a system that a person can easily check and see how much water is currently available.”

Enter: the Oklahoma Hydronet. The newly announced system will track aquifer levels in real-time across the state.

Agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey already monitor aquifers, and its data have been useful for understanding long-term groundwater trends. But the information can’t always help people with day-to-day water use decisions.

“There's a huge lag between when that data is collected and when it can be delivered to the public, and it's just one observation per year,” Ochsner said. “Especially for the shallower aquifers, or the aquifers that respond more seasonally, we need real-time information.”

The Hydronet aims to provide that in a way that’s easily accessible to Oklahomans, like the irrigator Ochsner worked with in Southwest Oklahoma. But the system aims to do more than track aquifers.

“As we started to talk about that, we realized it's not just groundwater,” Ochsner said. “We need better monitoring of our soil moisture and also our reservoirs.”

State and federal agencies already collect data on water levels in larger lakes. But Oklahoma is home to thousands of smaller reservoirs, many of them on private land. With cooperation from landowners and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Hydronet will keep track of water levels in many of those reservoirs. Researchers are particularly interested in seeing how those respond during hydrological extremes, like flooding and drought.

The Hydronet has funding for the next two years, but Ochsner hopes it will grow into a long-lived, world-class system. The Hydronet is working with and drawing inspiration from its weather-monitoring cousin, the Oklahoma Mesonet, which just celebrated its 30th birthday.

Ochsner calls the Mesonet “the envy of many states” and says he sees the Hydronet as a new opportunity for Oklahoma to lead.

“We'll be adding these groundwater and surface water pieces and then integrating them together,” Ochsner said. "I'm not aware of any system like that that currently exists in any other state, nor in the world for that matter.”

He expects water data to go live in summer of 2025.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

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