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Chesapeake Techies: When Bay conservation meets technology, everyone wins

Apr 05, 2017 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Ann Powell

Let me guess—you want to be interesting, stay young, become prosperous, and achieve all your goals. Well, here’s a little secret the Millennials already know: You’ve got to keep up with technology.

Keeping up with technology is exactly what the Chesapeake Conservancy and its CEO Joel Dunn are doing. In its brief 10-year lifespan, the Chesapeake Conservancy has become one of the most tech savvy environmental groups working to preserve the Chesapeake Bay.

The organization has moved into a leadership role in the regional conservation movement and works alongside larger organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Joel and his colleague, Conservation Technology Director Jeff Allenby, are polished, energetic, and easy-to-like young leaders. Most importantly, they are “Chesapeake techies.”

The nonprofit Conservancy recently marked its first decade with the launch of the Chesapeake Bay High-Resolution Land Cover Project. Wait, I know what you’re thinking—what in the world are we talking about, right?

Getting Up Close But Not Too Personal

The Chesapeake Bay High-Resolution Land Cover Project datasets convert photographic images (Annapolis is pictured) to digital data in order to show simple land classifications, each in a different color: structures are shown in red, all water is blue, all roads are black, and all tree canopy is dark green, among others.


The High-Resolution Land Cover Project is a mammoth digital map of the 100,000-square mile Chesapeake Bay watershed and surrounding counties. This newly created map—technically called a dataset—depicts the watershed in “one-meter by one-meter” resolution. For all you non-metric folks, that works out to about “three feet by three feet.”

Maps like this aren’t photos like those you see on Google Maps. Instead, they are actually datasets that computers can manipulate. The datasets essentially convert photographic images to digital data (ones and zeroes) in order to show simple land classifications, each in a different color. These include categories such as: low vegetation, bare earth, tree canopy, wetlands, structures, roads, other impervious surfaces, and, of course, water.

The analysts started with satellite and aerial photos that are produced every two years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Imagery Program. For land elevation data—hills and valleys—the staff also used LIDAR (which stands for Light Detection and Ranging). Then they did some coding and other computer voodoo to convert the photos to digital data that can be manipulated by computer models.

They taught their programs to recognize twelve different land classifications in the photos and assign a color to each. These computer models are designed to recognize what the human eye might see at ground level.

In the datasets, all structures are shown in red, all water is blue, all roads are black, all tree canopy is dark green…you get the picture. These maps are really colorful—and they provide 900 times more information about the challenges facing the landscape than did earlier watershed mapping tools. The cool thing is that the maps are open data, meaning they are free to download and completely accessible to the public.

Jeff Allenby’s staff has invested countless hours over the past two years to create the new datasets. He is pleased that “the High-Resolution Land Cover Project is free to download for anyone, anywhere.” He adds, “With a growing human population having an ever increasing impact on the Chesapeake’s land, water, and climate, we are looking now to provide regular, timely updates to this information.”


A Little Background

The Chesapeake Conservancy is located here in Annapolis, and within the Conservancy is the small but mighty Conservation Innovation Center. Led by Jeff Allenby, the Center’s team of young geospatial analysts created the High-Resolution Land Cover Project in 2016. Funded by grants and donations, the Center also develops a variety of other computer tools for Bay restoration.

The Chesapeake Conservancy came up with the High-Resolution Land Cover Project at the bidding of the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is a regional partnership managed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to coordinate Chesapeake Bay restoration. Partners in the Chesapeake Bay Program consortium include the EPA, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, other nonprofits, academic institutions, and the governments of Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, which is a water quality improvement plan to limit nutrient and sediment runoff in the Bay. The multi-state Blueprint spells out how to achieve by 2025 the EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) targets, sometimes called the “pollution diet.” A TMDL is the calculation of the maximum amount of a particular pollutant allowed to enter a body of water while still meeting water quality standards.

Pollutants entering the Chesapeake are generally either sediment washing off exposed land or excess nutrients carried into the water with stormwater runoff and wastewater disposal. These pollutants cause water quality problems and fish and wildlife degradation, due in part to algae growth that blocks sunlight and causes oxygen reduction in the Bay.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is intended to ensure that the involved states share the pollution reduction responsibility. It sets two-year incremental pollution reduction milestones to keep progress on track, and it imposes consequences for state and local governments that fail to meet their responsibilities. The datasets created by the Chesapeake Conservancy provide solid data that is critical for evaluating progress in meeting TMDL reduction targets.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is one of the organizations that work in tandem with the Chesapeake Conservancy. CBF is the largest nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to saving the Bay and implementing the Clean Water Blueprint, sometimes utilizing the Conservancy’s datasets in its work. CBF’s “Save the Bay” motto is well known as a watchword for Bay conservation efforts. The two organizations have similar objectives but play different roles in the conservation movement. For example, CBF was recently instrumental in litigation that defended a legal challenge to the Blueprint’s continued existence.
Chesapeake Innovation Center staff from left to right: David Saavedra, geospatial analyst; Margaret Markham, geospatial analyst; Cassandra Pallai, geospatial project manager; Chigo Ibeh, geospatial analyst, Jeffrey Allenby, director of conservation technology; Kathryn Wesson, geospatial analyst; and Louis Keddell, geospatial analyst


Precision Conservation Saves Money

The High-Resolution Land Cover Project provides a good baseline tool and accountability measure for conservation goals, The Chesapeake Conservancy also creates other tools, such as maps depicting water flow patterns parcel by parcel. Using these surface flow maps and the land cover datasets together can pinpoint areas with the greatest potential to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff into the Bay.

The maps, or datasets, exist to save money for the Bay conservation work of governments, nonprofits, academic institutions, and businesses. “Precision conservation” uses good data to make effective decisions about where to target on-the-ground conservation work. The idea is to use the limited supply of available conservation dollars at the right place, scale, size, and time in order to reap—dollar for dollar—the greatest actual improvement in Chesapeake Bay water quality.

As Conservancy President and CEO Joel Dunn describes it, “Think of this as an MRI for the landscape, with results that are focused and deployed to practice precision conservation. The more data backing any conservation decision, the more cost effective it becomes.” Mr. Dunn continues, “Just as technology changed the corporate world and the health care industry to make them more efficient, data can do the same for the environment.”

Most restoration efforts implement “Best Management Practices” or “BMPs,” a menu of options that can be physically installed on a site to achieve conservation goals. BMPs use the body of knowledge developed by conservation experts about which techniques in agriculture, commerce, industry, and land development work best for conservation and water quality improvement.

BMPs include things like bioswales, forest buffers, living shorelines, rain gardens, and coastal plain outfall devices. The datasets and maps can help to track how effective BMP restoration efforts actually are once they are installed.

Large datasets can also be used to monitor and track changes in land cover over time. They can be used to plan for targeted BMPs, conservation easements, and smaller land acquisitions by governments and nonprofits. These large datasets can help to prioritize restoration projects and substantiate funding awards, as well as identify areas that could qualify for credits in ecosystem service markets.

The tools are also used to analyze data about climate adaptation and sea level rise to find ways to make coastlines more resilient. And the data can help to track wetlands, forest buffers, habitat fragmentation, and riparian buffer gaps, as well as help to protect wildlife and endangered species.
Joel Dunn, President & CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy


Other Tools in the Toolbox

The latest geographic information system, or GIS, technology is costly because it requires expensive software licenses, high-powered computers, specialized training, and a steep learning curve. The Chesapeake Conservancy helps organizations and governments to overcome these challenges by developing custom web applications that reduce their costs.

As an example, the Conservation Toolbox is a web application for looking at individual parcels and assessing how well they meet conservation and restoration criteria. Users can view ecological and cultural data, perform simple landscape analyses, and export their work in clear and concise reports. The Toolbox allows practitioners to incorporate scientific data into their decision making.

The Conservation Innovation Center can help with studies to see where nutrients and sediment are flowing unchecked off the land. They can detect areas where water concentrates and potentially overwhelms the filtering capacity of riparian buffers. And they can find ecosystems and forest stands already present in the natural landscape that should be preserved because they are functioning as buffers to remove pollutants before they reach the Bay. Other tools can map stream headwaters that may be contributing downstream nutrients and sediment.


Learning by Example: Local Planning projects

The Chesapeake Conservancy works with many regional partners to use technology to better allocate limited local resources. Those partners include land trusts, community organizations, conservation districts, private environmental firms, and local, state, and federal agencies.

For example, the Conservancy recently completed a high-resolution land classification and stormwater runoff flow analysis for the entire Chester River watershed on Maryland’s eastern shore. The Conservancy’s study helped the Chester River Association and Chester Riverkeeper to understand where water flows across the land and which stream restoration projects and Best Management Practices would be the best use of conservation dollars.

Elsewhere, the Conservancy helped the Washington, D.C. Urban Forestry Administration to decide where to plant trees on public lands by analyzing existing tree cover and surface water accumulation. The Conservancy team works with other local governments to identify where stormwater retrofit projects would best be installed.

Technology can also help with managing a “viewshed,” meaning an area that is visible from a certain vantage point, in order to preserve the view for aesthetic reasons. The National Park Service worked with the Conservancy to identify important viewsheds along the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon sought help with determining the estate’s natural viewshed across the Potomac River.

In Conclusion The Chesapeake Conservancy has come into its own as a tech savvy catalyst for change. This small organization has worked for ten years to provide good data for conservation and restoration, advance public and private partnerships, and develop new ways to connect people with the Bay. The High-Resolution Land Cover Project provides the power to make effective decisions and practice precision conservation.

Dunn believes that “the High-Resolution Land Cover Data Project will fuel a conservation revolution born of hope, evidence, partnerships, and strong community support by leveraging technology to raise all ships in the conservation movement.” If he’s right, he adds, “then data can make everyone smarter, more efficient, and more effective at conserving our great rivers and special places.”

Learn More

Learn more about how the Chesapeake Conservancy is connecting people to the Chesapeake Bay to encourage conservation by visiting their website. An overview of additional programs, including the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail and links to Wildlife Webcams is available online.