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NASA to use space images to help monitor California drought

A tumbleweed is seen at an irrigation channel on a farm near Cantua Creek, California February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
A tumbleweed is seen at an irrigation channel on a farm near Cantua Creek, California February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

By Laila Kearney

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - NASA scientists plan to use images shot from space and within the Earth's atmosphere to help California monitor one of the worst droughts in its recorded history, officials said on Tuesday.

Scientists said they would deploy imaging tools to measure snowpack and groundwater levels and use a host of other technologies to help better map and assess the water resources in a state that produces half the nation's fruits and vegetables.

"We're on the verge of being able to put all of these different kinds of instruments together, these measurements together, and start looking at the concept of perhaps closing the water budget of California," Tom Farr, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory geologist, told reporters at a news conference.

While much of the United States has experienced torrential rains and heavy snowfall this winter, California is in the midst of a drought threatening to inflict the biggest water crisis in its modern history.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last month and has called on state officials to prepare for water shortages and develop solutions for potentially long-term dry weather.

The California Department of Water Resources has contracted with NASA to use data that will be collected next month with airplane mapping tools to measure water stored in the California snowpack, according to Jeanine Jones, the department's interstate water resources manager.

California could also soon utilize data from a satellite mapping system to gauge the extent of land subsidence, or sinking, because of dwindling groundwater levels, researchers said.

That data will help state officials plan for year-round water availability and locate and determine the size of aquifers, as well as detecting any damage caused by excessive groundwater pumping, researchers said.

State officials hope to ultimately use NASA satellite imagery to track the expanse of fallowed agricultural land in California's Central Valley to more accurately assess the impact of the drought on agricultural production.

Officials have said that California farmers facing drastic cutbacks in irrigation water are expected to idle half a million acres of cropland this year in a record production loss that could cause billions of dollars in economic damage.

Looking ahead, officials will also seek to use images shot from two NASA satellites - one designed to measure precipitation and another that tracks soil moisture levels - that are scheduled to launch into orbit this year.

(editing by Gunna Dickson)

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