Bay Journal

Precision conservation: mapping the watershed meter by meter

Chesapeake Conservancy’s online tools will help to focus cleanup efforts where they will be most effective

  • By Leslie Middleton on January 24, 2016
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Jeff Allenby, director of the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center right, and coworker, Colin Stief, discuss making the online tool interactive for their client.  (Dave Harp)

A handful of young computer professionals, most fresh out of college or graduate school, work at stand-up workstations, or sit, using ergonomic ‘balance balls’ as chairs. They peer intently at screens checkered with aerial images of farms, forests and subdivisions.

Here, in a workroom at the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy in Annapolis, they are re-imaging the Chesapeake Bay watershed and creating new ways to envision restoration, conservation and public access to the Bay and its rivers.

At one workstation, Jeff Allenby, their leader and the director of the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center, clicks his mouse, causing a vertical cursor to scroll from left to right. An aerial image of dense forest is replaced with another image of the exact same parcel two years later. In this second image, the forest has been penetrated with a road leading to 20 houses, each with its own lawn and driveway.

It’s a graphic demonstration of how quickly forests and fields can turn into developments, and it is just one of the many tools being developed at the center to help nonprofits, government agencies, and local governments “make informed decisions about where best to do conservation work,” Allenby said.

They call their work “precision conservation,” a term first used by agricultural researchers in the Midwest in the early 2000s. The conservancy is using the techniques to “help our partners become smarter, more efficient and more effective,” said Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Conservancy, “and thus increase the pace of conservation in the watershed.”

The innovation center was born of the group’s own necessity. The Conservancy has its roots as the Friends of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which began in 2000 as an organization to create the new trail within the National Parks system. The trail was approved by Congress in 2006, and the organization’s focus turned to protecting the landscapes and creating public access along the 3,000-mile water trail. With those goals, the organization changed its name to the Chesapeake Conservancy.

But to identify places for easements and public access amongst the forests, wetlands, open space, houses and other development along the trail, Allenby said, “we needed to be smart, and use

our time efficiently, not just chase the easy opportunities.”

Allenby was brought on in 2012 to help the organization figure out how to use technology to be strategic in its work.

The timing was fortuitous. High-resolution imagery from satellites and airplanes was becoming more available. At the same time, the computing power needed to analyze the larger datasets being generated by those technologies was improving and becoming less expensive.

With a really “beefy” computer bought at a “fire-sale” price, Allenby set to the basic task of transforming aerial imagery into digital land cover data — at a resolution that would allow land managers to make specific, local decisions about protection or restoration on individual parcels.

“If you look at Google maps, you can see what’s obviously a forest, and a road and a house — and your brain is making a lot of contextual decisions about how to identify one feature as a road, another as a house,” Allenby explained. “We’re basically training the computer to make those same decisions.”

Because these computer processes are semi-automated, it is possible to process imagery of very large land areas. And while others have done this kind of imagery processing, Allenby said, it had generally been done for smaller areas like counties. “We wanted to do it for the whole Chesapeake Bay watershed.”

Allenby analyzed the land cover in a small watershed first — the Chester River on the Eastern Shore — then progressed to larger systems: the Choptank, the Nanticoke, the James, refining the techniques to improve efficiency and accuracy.

Then the Conservancy pitched the idea of total Bay watershed land cover mapping to the state-federal Bay Program partnership, which was considering how to improve the land use data in the model that is guiding the Chesapeake Bay clean up.

“They never thought it would be feasible to have high-resolution land cover for the entire watershed for a price that they could hope to justify within their budget,” said Allenby. But the Conservancy ultimately convinced the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees federal budgets, that it would be an affordable — and worthy — investment.

The Bay Program’s land use data had been based on imagery with a 30-meter resolution. Now it will be based on a 1-meter imagery, which is a 900-fold increase in accuracy. Coupled with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that provides information about the height of land features, the Conservancy’s land cover data is further improved, Allenby said.

“I would never have thought 10 years ago we’d have the capability to have this kind of detailed land cover information,” said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA Bay Program Office. But modeling land use at the same scale that localities need it to plan and implement watershed restoration, he said, is “a game changer.”

The term “precision conservation” is an evolution from the practices of “precision agriculture,” methods that use GPS and other technologies to maximize yields through precise application of fertilizer and water and soil management.

But as LiDAR and aerial and satellite imagery became increasingly available, researchers working with farmers were able to more precisely map topography and water drainage on individual fields, information that could be used to plan where best management practices like forest buffers would be the most effective.

Craig Cox, while serving as executive director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, started to spread the mantra that precision conservation was “putting the right conservation practices in the right place, at the right scale, at the right time.”

In 2013, Allenby and Dunn recognized the wisdom in that philosophy, and set out to develop tools to locate the best places for BMP projects in the Bay watershed. First, they demonstrated how the technology could be used to optimize the stormwater management benefits in a tree-planting project with the Kent County, MD, schools. Then they created an online toolset for the Chester River Association to identify high-quality ecosystems for possible conservation easements.

Today, the Chester River watershed toolkit includes GIS-based terrain and flow analysis — a method of modeling how water flows across the land — to help the association develop a targeted watershed restoration plan. Isabel Hardesty, the Chester Riverkeeper, said that the group knew generally where the problems were through extensive water-quality monitoring. But, she said, “like many environmental organizations, we’re only so big and we have to figure out how best to use our resources.”

The Conservancy also mapped the location and quality of buffers along the James River and its tributaries. The James River Association used that data in its 2015 State of the James report card. Now, the group has a baseline — 80 percent of the 100-foot buffers in the James River are forested, which is 94 percent of the group’s goal. Updated data can be used to measure change against this baseline. This changes measures of progress, Allenby said, from a level of effort, like money spent or trees planted, to actual improvements on the ground.

The information provided to the James River Association is the baseline for a three-year project to encourage the adoption of stream exclusion practices throughout the watershed. “The land cover data show us where buffer coverage is adequate or sub-par,” said Shawn Ralston, the James River Association’s program manager, “but we’re also flying over the river after rains to find sediment plumes, and ground-truthing from boats to see where livestock are obviously in the streams.”

The conservancy will combine these data into a web-based tool that will be shared with four soil and water conservation districts in the watershed so that district staff can target their outreach for stream exclusion fencing to go in where it will do the most good. “I feel like this is the right way to go about the project. We only have so much money, so we want to use it in places where we can make the most impact,” Ralston said.

The flow-path analysis tools can also be used in urban settings. The conservancy is working with the District of Columbia to develop a web-based decision-making tool that will not only help it achieve its tree canopy goal but also help locate trees where they will provide multiple benefits — such as helping to improve air quality and provide cooling while also reducing stormwater runoff.

“I’m imagining we could be sitting in the comfort of your home with a laptop and analyzing the optimum placement of a new tree in your yard based on stormwater benefit,” said Earl Eutsler, an urban forestry director for the district’s Department of Transportation who is responsible for the district’s tree canopy goal.

The tools that the conservancy is developing to deploy “precision conservation” on behalf of its partners are designed to be user friendly — and to be used. In fact, the conservancy hopes serve as “GIS consultant” to small nonprofits, as well as larger groups in the Bay watershed.

The conservancy is not the only group developing precision conservation tools in the watershed. The University of Vermont, which Allenby calls “a leader in the industry,” has done similar projects with the Baltimore Wilderness Coalition and is working with the conservancy on the land cover project for the Bay Program.

“I think the technology is reinvigorating people’s belief that we can actually fix the Bay,” Dunn said. “Unlike any time before, we have this amazing information resource to tell us where we need to focus our energy and time,” he said, adding, “Just like an MRI does for a patient, these data and tools will do for the Bay.”

For information about the Conservation Innovation Center’s applications and tools, visit

About Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Read more articles by Leslie Middleton


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Matteo Luccio on January 28, 2016:

Excellent article!

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