A new snowpack monitoring system for the Upper Missouri River basin will be began installation later this year, with the goal of providing more information for flood monitoring.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Sept. 29 that $48.2 million contract with four universities, including $12.8 million with South Dakota State University to expand the SDSU Mesonet program. The goal is to help with monitoring Missouri River snowpack and soil moisture statuses.

In all, the expanded network will include 540 weather stations over an area of 250,000 square miles. That equates to a station every couple of dozen miles and some existing stations are being retrofitted. SDSU is working on the first 10 sites to be installed in South Dakota to supplement the existing stations.

These stations -- which are automated weather and environmental monitoring sites -- will monitor “total water” within the Plains areas of the Upper Missouri River Basin, including precipitation (rain and snow), wind speed and direction, solar radiation, air temperature, snow depth and soil moisture.

Frozen and saturated soil and significant snowpack on the Upper Missouri River Basin plains were major contributors to flooding in 2011 and 2019. The South Dakota Mesonet is making the updated station’s data available via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ingest system to their river forecasters and snow modelers.

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"The soil moisture and the plains snow information will be integrated into our upper basin runoff models, which is part of our management of the Mainstem Reservoir System", said John Remus, chief of the Corps' Missouri River Basin Water Management Division.

The news drew the praise of South Dakota's congressional leaders, including U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, who has made the work a priority.

“Following the flooding events of 2011 and 2019, it’s abundantly clear that we need more accurate weather monitoring throughout the Missouri Basin,” Rounds said. “Since coming to the Senate nearly six years ago, I’ve been working to implement a snowpack monitoring system, which will allow the Corps to make better, more accurate decisions with regard to river management. (This) announcement is a huge first step toward better river system management.”

“When it comes to weather related events, having the most accurate, up to date information is one of the best tools we have to help mitigate potentially devastating consequences,” said U.S. Sen. John Thune. “As we approach the 10th anniversary of historic flooding of 2011 in the Missouri River Basin, this important system will build on our work to improve forecasting and information sharing in an effort to ensure reliable information is available to state and local governments and residents as flood mitigation efforts are implemented.”

“No South Dakotan can forget the devastating flooding on the Missouri in 2011,” said U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson. “Accurate snowpack monitoring and preparation are key. I’m confident SDSU will utilize these tools to ensure boots on the ground have an accurate forecast so South Dakotans can be best prepared.”

In addition to SDSU, the University of Wyoming, the University of Montana, and North Dakota State University have been chosen to lead the implementation of the snowpack monitoring system. About 35 monitoring stations are expected to be constructed in 2021.

In South Dakota, 39 monitoring systems are already in place and will need upgraded equipment and instrumentation added, while 100 new sites in South Dakota are expected to be added. SDSU will be responsible for selecting the new sites and will own, operate and maintain the sites.

Some of the work has already been extensively tested. From December 2018 through July 2019, SDSU climatologists conducted various instrumentation and measurement techniques to test the practicability and accuracy of different technologies in snow and soil moisture monitoring stations on campus in Brookings. This effort resulted in recommendations that are being implemented in three pilot monitoring stations with the goal of implementing a large scale monitoring network throughout the upper Missouri River basin.

“This investment in the South Dakota Mesonet will pay dividends not only in the areas of flood and drought for which it is intended, but for precision agriculture, natural resource management, wildfire and severe weather," said Nathan Edwards, director of South Dakota Mesonet. “Every South Dakotan’s life is touched by weather on a daily basis. The livelihoods of many depend on it. We can all benefit from improved monitoring.”