Funding the statewide weather monitor is on hold as senators, stakeholders opt for strategic plan

April 11, 2023, 1 p.m. ·

A man in a light brown hooded jacket is seen from behind, looking into an electrical box. A thin tower of metal pipes is above the box, with a wind vane on one side. The equipment is surrounded by a green fence. A snowy pasture and cloudy sky is in the ba
Nebraska’s statewide weather monitoring system has been running on a patchwork budget to operate weather stations that collect data for farmers, scientists, emergency responders and more. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media)

A legislative bill has been tabled that would have provided funding for Nebraska’s statewide weather monitoring system, which has been running on a patchwork budget to operate weather stations that collect data for farmers, scientists, emergency responders and more.

The system – known as the Nebraska Mesonet – would have received more than $1 million over two years in the proposal drafted by state Sens. Myron Dorn of Adams and Tom Brandt of Plymouth.

Dorn said the bill has been tabled in favor of forming a committee to take a hard look at the system’s capacity and what it needs to grow in the future.

“We could have maybe funded it with general funds this year,” he said. “But we also don’t want to go down the wrong path and come back three years from now and go, ‘Boy, we didn’t plan the best.’”

Dorn said the general consensus between his office, the University of Nebraska and Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources – which both fund the network – is to work toward increasing the number of stations across the state and ensure support is reliable and ongoing.

Mike Boehm, the University of Nebraska’s vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, hopes the meetings will create a blueprint for an improved system with long-term support.

Some questions Boehm hopes the committee can discuss: How do farmers, scientists and agencies like the National Weather Service use the weather data? What other information would be helpful for those groups? Can the program be more strategic in where it places stations? How many stations does the state need to collect comprehensive weather data?

And the big question: How much money will it all cost?

“There’s so much potential with this network,” Boehm said. “We need users to show how important this information is, and how much we can grow. A more permanent allocation would allow us to do something incredible for Nebraska, far into the future.”

Increasing the number of stations and amount of funding would be a reversal of the network’s fortunes from recent years, when budget shortfalls forced staff to shut down several stations, even as the state battled intense drought.

That won’t be repeated soon – even with the tabled funding – according to Boehm. He said the university stepped in with two years of operating dollars and boosted staff to support the network in the near future.

“We haven’t found the long-term solution, but we have absolutely got the right people talking to each other and we’ve shored up some things financially,” Boehm said.

Ken Herz is a farmer, rancher and former Nebraska Cattlemen association official who relies on the data. He supported the bill, but said he understands the need for thoughtful planning.

“If we're going to go to the effort, let's make sure we do something that is going to be long lasting, and it's going to be a permanent type of funding for that system,” Herz said. “The value of the Mesonet is so far-reaching, but it has to be properly funded to be effective.”

Dorn said he expects to schedule discussions for this fall.