By Amanda Stahl and Alexander Fremier, Washington State University
Washington State is taking steps to foster environmental stewardship in agriculture using an alternative approach to direct regulatory oversight. Twenty-seven counties in Washington have opted into the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP), which requires them to self-assess (with state oversight) whether voluntary management actions are maintaining or enhancing Critical Areas. Critical Areas include wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, frequently flooded areas, and geologically hazardous areas. Most counties cite riparian conservation measures as a strategy to maintain or enhance at least one type of Critical Area. Riparian conservation measures, like planting or allowing natural vegetation to grow, can also address the impacts of climate change, providing shade to cool water in the stream, improving habitat for species stressed by climate change, and possibly helping moderate extremes in moisture availability year-round. Conserving small land areas can thus have a large impact for mitigating the effects of climate change. The question is, how can we quickly determine if these measures are working, and meeting the goals of the VSP?
Through monitoring, of course. Conservation Districts assist counties with monitoring, commonly involving site visits for each project. Due to limited budgets and logistical challenges, a ground-based approach cannot realistically provide the landscape-level monitoring needed for the VSP. Monitoring plans thus refer to aerial and satellite imagery as important tools for detecting change (or no change) over time. Yet, many local governments and Conservation Districts have minimal capacity to perform image analysis in-house. And existing products that detect land cover change from imagery are typically either too coarse-grained (particularly for narrow riparian corridors) or do not apply to all regions of the state, so their use for reporting at the landscape scale remains limited.
Our research team at Washington State University partnered with the Palouse Conservation District to investigate potential options for leveraging advances in UAV (drone) technology, freely available satellite images and cloud computing to add remote sensing techniques to the conservation practitioners’ toolbox. We completed a pilot study in drylands in Whitman County and vicinity, where riparian restoration is increasingly adopted as an off-farm-field strategy to protect critical areas, reduce climate change impacts and improve water quality conditions. We aimed to develop steps that could be easily repeated and adapted to fit the wide variety of riparian ecosystems across Washington State or beyond to other ecosystems and locations, including agricultural lands.
First, we flew a drone mounted with cameras at nine sites with different types of streamside settings, thanks to a group of producers who volunteered to participate in the study. By taking 100 or more aerial photographs from different angles with substantial overlap, we were able to use photogrammetry to construct georeferenced 3-D renderings of the plant canopy and stream, as well as use different parts of the reflected light spectrum (Figure 1) to gauge plant health. We are sharing what we are learning with the Palouse and other Conservation Districts as well as conservation practitioners across Washington to help identify opportunities to incorporate drone-based data collection into their monitoring programs.
An added benefit of using the cloud is sharing data and analysis. We can then train others on the programming, sharing our work, or we can share the outputs through a user-friendly Earth Engine App. The App can be made publicly available and can enable any user to interact with the data. For example, personnel preparing monitoring reports at Conservation Districts or County offices will be able to change the dates or location of the analysis. This means that anyone can access big data, whether to track changes before, during, and after a restoration project or to anonymously report riparian improvements for the VSP.
We found an untapped potential to use emerging remote sensing technologies to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of natural vegetation monitoring in agricultural settings. We are continuing to collaborate with Conservation Districts across the state to tailor these tools to their needs and share the code we co-develop. Harnessing these capabilities may ultimately enable researchers and practitioners to build stronger links between conservation measures and the broader outcomes of mitigating climate change impacts, maximize the benefit of limited on-the-ground monitoring, and contribute to ensuring agricultural sustainability.