In the San Luis Valley, the majority of irrigation is done by center-pivot irrigation systems. Like a hand on a clock, a line of sprinklers powered by a motor moves around, producing the familiar circles seen by airline passengers.

The circles don't overlap, leaving small patches of arid ground that don't receive any water and so don't have any plants growing on them.

Reeves confirmed that these unvegetated data points were trustworthy by comparing the satellite data to data collected from wells in the area – exactly the kind of proof that would be important to hydrologists studying aquifers.

The satellites use interferometric synthetic aperture radar, known as InSAR. It is a radar technique that measures the shape of the surface of Earth and can be used to track shape changes over time. Earth scientists often use InSAR to measure how much the ground has shifted after an earthquake.

While continuously orbiting, a satellite sends an electromagnetic wave down to the surface. The wave then bounces back up and is detected by the satellite. The properties of the wave tell scientists how far the wave traveled before it was reflected back. This distance is directly related to the position of the ground.

After the satellite completes a circle around the globe, it returns to the same location to send down another radar wave and take another measurement. Measurements are taken every 35 days and data collection can go on for years.

Compared to drilling wells for monitoring groundwater aquifers, using InSAR data would be much cheaper and provide many more data points within a given area. Traditional methods rely on wells that were not built with scientific data sampling in mind and their results can be inconsistent. Moreover, the number of wells drilled into any particular aquifer is much too small to be able to cover the entire groundwater system.

Hydrologists and regulatory bodies looking for more data to better understand their groundwater system could one day set policies requiring farmers to leave a patch of land clear for InSAR data collection. Furthermore, the technique could be used in agricultural regions anywhere in the world, even those that lack modern infrastructure such as wells.

"I think it really has potential to change the way we collect data to manage our groundwater," said Reeves.