Using Satellite Imagery to Estimate Consumptive Water Use from Irrigated Lands in the Milk River Basin, United States and Canada

Science Center Objects

The U.S. Geological Survey, with the support of the International Joint Commission, and in cooperation with Alberta Environment and Parks, Blackfeet Nation, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, is leading a project that should improve information available to apportion water between Canada and the United States in the St. Mary and Milk River Basins. One component of the water budget, consumptive use of irrigation water (the amount of supplemental water used by crops), can be estimated at 100-meter resolution almost every week using imagery recorded by satellites from 1985 to present (2021) and weather data, when conditions permit. Better estimates of consumptive water use should improve understanding of water availability and use in the basin and should assist with water apportionment procedures.

Timeline and Goals

  • Phase 1, completed in 2020, focused on obtaining and preparing the input datasets required for the consumptive water-use estimates (using an energy balance model, SSEBop; Senay and others, 2013). 
  • Phase 2 is in progress and should be completed in the spring and summer of 2021 and 2022, when in situ data associated with irrigated lands in the Milk River Basin should be collected. These data will be used to potentially improve and verify the consumptive-use estimates derived from SSEBop.
  • Phase 3 is planned to begin in 2023 with a focus on running and optimizing the SSEBop model for the upper Milk River Basin. An easy-to-use web application is expected to be developed for anyone to be able to obtain and visualize current and historical consumptive-use data in the basin.

Expected Outcomes

  • A historical database of consumptive water use in the St. Mary and Milk River Basins.
  • Biweekly or monthly estimates of current consumptive water use using the newly expanded SSEBop model.
  • An online, interactive web application using historical database and biweekly or monthly estimates to allow irrigators, resource managers, and the public to visualize and compare current and historical conditions in the basin.

Important note: this project is not an examination of water rights or licenses.