Online app gauges Colorado rainfall

'After supper I would go down to the basement and spend two hours drawing up the map and putting it online.'

'Jon Cornick

J. Adam Fenster

What began as a program in one Colorado man's basement'with data from volunteer ranchers checking rain gauges in their yards and mailing postcards of measurements'has grown into an online application.

After floods in the early 1960s, a loosely organized group of volunteers asked the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colo., for rain gauges. After the ranchers collected a year's worth of rain data on paper, a coordinator would collect the papers and publish an annual report.

Then came the flood of 1965, which inundated downtown Colorado Springs and Black Squirrel Creek, which flows to the Arkansas River. The number of Rain Check volunteers doubled, said Jon Cornick, a retired Air Force weather officer and current vice president of the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Meteorological Society. By 1968, the program had 130 volunteers to produce the annual rainfall report.

But then 'ranching lost its flavor,' Cornick said. The county's demographics shifted from rural to urban. People built homes instead of cattle ranches and held city jobs. Rain Check participation slacked off.

By 1996, when Cornick took over the Pikes Peak Chapter, Rain Check had about a dozen faithful volunteers left. Cornick gave them postcards with his address and a stamp on one side and a calendar on the other. Volunteers would record the rainfall on the calendar side and drop it in the mail each month.

Almost as damaging as flooding is hail. A 10-minute hailstorm can put a farmer out of business, Cornick said.

So the Rain Check project also gave the volunteers hail pads to measure hail.

Cornick built a Web page with basic graphics and loaded it on his Internet service provider's Web site.

'It became part of my life,' Cornick said. 'After supper I would go down to the basement and spend two hours drawing the map and putting it online.'

At a community meeting after a May 2001 tornado, El Paso County officials sought help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Project Impact. They got a $300,000 grant for rain gauges and other technology to spot potential floods and take steps to mitigate hazards.

Automated reporting

Although Cornick was still operating Rain Check out of his basement, he now had about 80 volunteers. He turned away many people because he didn't have enough rain gauges.

In 2002, Patrick Lunney, a senior meteorologist with Technology Service Corp. of Silver Spring, Md., offered to automate Rain Check. 'He said they would help get me out of the basement,' Cornick said.

Cornick worked with the company's Colorado Springs office and the county to set up a site at www.rain-check.org. Now Cornick e-mails a password to each volunteer. The data is refreshed every 24 hours'an enormous improvement over annual reporting, Cornick said.

The vendor and Cornick built the site using ArcIMS geographic information system software from ESRI of Redlands, Calif., and a Microsoft SQL Server database.

Now after a flood, the county has the data to justify requests for assistance from FEMA, said Jim Mesite, emergency program manager for El Paso County's emergency services.

Mesite described most of the county as an 'alpine desert' where annual precipitation averages 17 inches. But in 1999, the county got 14 inches of rain in two days, causing $30 million worth of damage.

'With Rain Check, we were able to see why we had that much damage and take steps to improve conditions,' Mesite said.

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