LOGAN – In Utah and throughout the West, water is scarce. The farms and communities in the state depend on the snowpack and subsequent runoff each year, but even with good snowpack, it can be difficult to predict how much water will be available.
According to Utah State University researcher Scott Jones, there is currently nothing available that can measure water flow in soils, but he is hoping to change that with a newly developed device.
“Water flow in soils is what feeds a good majority of our ground water and a lot of our municipal water comes from groundwater,” he said. “So it would be great if we could measure and monitor the inputs of water from precipitation, snow into the reservoir.”
According to a USU press release, the small device contains five needles that can be used to detect the soil’s water flow and direction. These devices would need to be arranged throughout the mountains and forests in large numbers to be as effective as possible, but it is still a less expensive and potentially more effective solution than the 100 sites around Utah that monitor snowpack.
Jones got some of his inspiration for the device from researchers at USU’s Space Dynamics Lab, who were trying to irrigate plants on the Mir Space Station. Jones noticed they were using a thermal sensor to look at the water content of the soil.
He said that a with a two-needle device – like the ones used by the Space Dynamics Lab – one needle serves as a heater and the other serves as a sensor. The heater needle sends out a heat pulse, heating up the sensor needle. The amount of temperature change experienced by the sensor needle reveals the soil’s water content.
What Jones did is add additional sensor needles. By doing this, the water flow’s direction and velocity can be measured.
“If you use three needles so you have an upstream and a downstream,” he said. “Then you can actually look at water flow rates. We started building three needle probes and trying to measure water flow and soil columns.”
The device, which has been in development for more than 10 years and has received more than $2 million in finding isn’t currently in production, but Jones thinks it could be available soon. Logan-based Apogee Instruments took on the project.
“We’re working with them to try and commercialize a three-needle version of this probe,” he said. “In terms of time frame it could be within the next year or two if things go well.”