In the near future, data from 19 satellites hovering over Earth may let growers obtain evapotranspiration data on their farms down to a quarter mile and use it to manage their irrigation program and boost water efficiency, says Jim Bridenstine.

Visiting the World Ag Expo last month, the NASA administrator told the media that technology originally developed for space exploration has the potential to help farmers reduce water use, protect nitrates in the soil and improve crop production.

The satellites are sensing the planet in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light, infrared, radio signals and even ultraviolet light. NASA is using this data in partnership with NOAA, which has weather sensors on the ground, and University of California Extension to obtain these precise measurements.

“In some cases we’re able to make very precise determinations as to evapotransporation on the Earth surface — in other words, how much water is being used by a particular farm — down to a quarter acre,” Bridenstine says.

The data can be used to help farmers know how much water to use. The former Oklahoma congressman says early experiments with a limited number of farmers showed they can maintain yields while reducing water use by 20-25%. He also expects nitrate leaching issues in some areas could be lessened by not overwatering fields.

The plan, he adds, is to implement this technology across the U.S. — and possibly world wide — to allow for very precise calculations on irrigation.

“If we can do that, the goal is to feed more of world than ever before and maximize the utility of every drop of water,” Bridenstine says. “We’re leveraging technology that exists today to be prepared for agriculture in the future.”

If we can get more farms to adopt no-till practices and do a better job of banking the moisture they do get, perhaps it will help this technology pay off even more and zero on problem areas that need specific attention.

It’s not very hard to imagine scenarios where the collection of this data might create some privacy concerns, or stoke fear of overreaching by federal regulators. But the water crisis in California and the dwindling southern leg of the Ogallala aquifer in the Great Plains pose very severe threats to our farm economy.

It’s always better to rely on technology that is readily available than to open the door for heavy-handed regulation and oversight. I think it’s best the federal government fast-track this technology and come up with a plan that will secure support and buy-in from farmers.

Does this sound like a pipe dream? I really hope it’s not, because of what’s at stake in the western U.S. If adoption of proven precision irrigation methods that are already available doesn’t accelerate more quickly, it may take technology like this to preserve our water assets, help ensure food security for our country and those we serve around the globe, and preserve farmers’ livelihoods and our rural economies.