Retrospective satellite image data were evaluated for their ability to demonstrate the influence of center-pivot irrigation development in western Nebraska on spectral change and climate-related factors for the region. Periodic images of an albedo index and a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) were generated from calibrated Landsat multispectral scanner (MSS) data and used to monitor spectral changes associated with irrigation development from 1972 through 1986. The albedo index was not useful for monitoring irrigation development. For the NDVI, it was found that proportions of counties in irrigated agriculture, as discriminated by a threshold, were more highly correlated with reported ground estimates of irrigated agriculture than were county mean greenness values. A similar result was achieved when using coarse resolution Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) image data for estimating irrigated agriculture. The NDVI images were used to evaluate a procedure for making areal estimates of actual evapotranspiration (ET) volumes. Estimates of ET volumes for test counties, using reported ground acreages and corresponding standard crop coefficients, were correlated with the estimates of ET volume using crop coefficients scaled to NDVI values and pixel counts of crop areas. These county estimates were made under the assumption that soil water availability was unlimited. For nonirrigated vegetation, this may result in over-estimation of ET volumes. Ground information regarding crop types and acreages are required to derive the NDVI scaling factor. Potential ET, estimated with the Jensen-Haise model, is common to both methods. These results, achieved with both MSS and AVHRR data, show promise for providing climatologically important land surface information for regional and global climate models. ?? 1990 Kluwer Academic Publishers.