Weather station may shut down

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

COVINGTON -- If you want to know how much rain fell in Newton County on a particularly wet day, or how the temperature varies from this time last year, or what the soil temperature is at 2 inches versus 8 inches, there's an easy way to do it.

The Georgia Automated Environmental Monitoring Network can be accessed at www.georgiaweather.net, and it has become a popular resource across the state, getting around 500,000 hits per month. But the system is in danger of being shut down due to lack of funding, and those who manage and use it say that could be detrimental to residents.

The network consists of about 80 weather monitoring stations across the state, including one located in Newton County, at the FFA-FCCLA Center off Ga. Highway 36.

Established in 1991 by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences of the University of Georgia, the objective is to collect reliable weather information for agricultural and environmental applications. Each station monitors air temperature, relative humidity, rainfall, solar radiation, wind speed, wind direction, soil temperature, atmospheric pressure and soil moisture every one second. Data are summarized at 15- minute intervals. At midnight, a daily summary is calculated.

"It's used by a wide range of individuals and groups, including the utility companies, both electric and gas, and a wide range of people throughout agriculture in all parts of the state," said Dale Threadgill, department head of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of Georgia. "The legal profession uses it in terms of getting accurate weather-related claims for damage, and students through the public school system use it for science projects."

The city of Covington relies on the weather station to collect data for customers.

"We have used the site to develop temperature patterns, such as following cold periods, to help explain bills that may have been higher than the customer expected," said Bill Meecham, the city's utilities director. "A good case was the previous year's winter, starting in December 2009, when we had many more cold days than a year earlier. The site has features where you can compare temperatures and rainfall in different time frames and develop average temperatures. We also use weather data from there and elsewhere to forecast gas system loads during cold weather. There's a lot of historical data from recent years."

Ted Wynne, the county's extension agent, said he refers landscapers to the site to determine when it's best to put out herbicides and farmers go there to find out when to plant. Wynne also uses the site as justification for farmers claiming disaster for their crop in writing to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The system costs about $300,000 a year to maintain, but the impact of it shutting down could cost much more, according to Threadgill.

"Golf courses use the site to get soil temperature data to help schedule when to do certain pesticide treatments," he said. If the dates are not available, the result could be that those that use pesticides and herbicides could wind up playing a guessing game, and more runoff could wind up in local waterways, he said.

"That's just a small example. There's an overall impact on water quality and air quality. The list goes on about impacts. It does have a huge impact. Hundreds and hundreds of people across the state depend on some part of the operation," he said.

Plans are to shut down the network at the end of June. Verbal commitments have been made for additional funding from private sources that could extend the life of the network by another month or two, buying time until a more permanent funding source is available, Threadgill said. The university partially funds the network; remaining funds have in the past come through grants and contracts for research projects secured by a faculty member who is no longer at the university.