By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The first of five new weather stations was installed this week in rural Hill County, marking the advent of increased weather monitoring in the area.
With the assistance of officials from Blaine and Liberty counties and workers from the Road Department, Hill County officials assembled and installed the first station on Wednesday.
Rising 20 feet above a field on Joey Dusek's farm 22 miles north of Havre, the station has the capability to measure a number of weather conditions including precipitation, subsoil moisture, ground and air temperature, wind speed, and sunlight and ultraviolet rays.
"Basically the whole idea is to get a much better read on subsoil moisture, wind, sunlight and other elements," Hill County Commission Chair Pat Conway said.
The station, along with four others, is part of a regional effort to obtain more accurate weather information. Ultimately, county officials hope the information will be used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture when deciding how to use drought and disaster relief funds.
For that to happen, the information from the new stations will have to closely coincide with that of National Weather Service stations in the region.
Conway said the county has yet to reach an agreement with the USDA to use the new weather stations' data.
"That's still a long way off," he said. "We're still in the initial phases."
One of the biggest advantages to the new stations is the ability to measure subsoil moisture at various depths, a feature that the National Weather Service stations don't have, Conway said. During hot and windy weather, the soil may not absorb the moisture whenever it rains, he added. The new probes will demonstrate the extent to which that occurs.
"What's crucial is that these soil probes will show how much moisture we have (in the soil)," Conway said.
County Commissioner Doug Kaercher pointed to the discrepancy between the amount of precipitation and the amount of water the soil actually retains.
"Even if you get a half an inch of rain, but if it's hot and windy, it just evaporates" without being absorbed, he said.
The stations are manufactured by Davis Instruments, a California-based company. Each unit costs about $1,700. The stations consist of a main unit attached to a 20-foot pole, as well as smaller probes placed in the ground.
The stations are solar-powered, but also have backup batteries. Information gathered by the stations is sent via radio signal to a nearby monitor. From there the data are transferred to a central gathering position where they join readings from the other stations.
The public can access the weather information on the Internet.
The units arrive from California in boxes, and require assembly before use. Installing the units entails using a combination of delicate touch and a healthy amount of elbow grease. The first step is to assemble the main unit, which houses a precipitation measuring device, a solar-powered computer and a radio.
Then the tower is installed. The tower is constructed on-site, drilled 5 feet into the ground and then secured with cement. The tower must be able to withstand gusts of wind that exceed 60 mph.
Finding locations to install the stations requires a little creativity and a lot of common sense. The stations need to be near a power source that can supply juice to the monitor, and have a clear path to send radio signals, but also need to be far enough away from buildings so that wind and precipitation aren't blocked.
"It's not that hard of a process, but there are a few tricks to this," said Ed Diemert, a Liberty County commissioner. Liberty County has spearheaded the weather station effort, Kaercher said.
The first of the counties to install the new stations, Liberty County already has five in place. Stillwater County has installed several, and Blaine County has already purchased three.
Hill County is one of 29 counties in Montana that will install the stations. Diemert said Liberty and Toole counties have been working on the project since 2001.
"We were in the middle of the drought and we weren't qualifying for any assistance," he said, adding that Liberty County missed being declared a drought county that year by a margin of less than one-tenth of an inch of precipitation.