California Turns to Aerial Images to Tackle Water Conservation

Droughts and water conservation have become a way of life in California, which struggles to both conserve water and ensure all residents have safe and reliable access to water. While some local communities are turning to apps to conserve water, there is now a statewide initiative involving aerial imaging.

In November, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued Executive Order B-37-16, which calls for a fundamental shift to a conservation framework that is durable and can be applied equitably and uniformly across the state.

As part of developing a new conservation framework, the state has budgeted $3 million to analyze high-resolution aerial images of 410 urban water suppliers’ areas throughout California. State water regulators will combine data from those images with data on climate, as well as other factors, to assist state officials in calculating new community-specific conservation targets. The images will not only provide important information for water conservation planning, but will also represent cost savings for the state.

“What the images do is they avoid painstaking, time-consuming, highly costly work of parcel-by-parcel analysis on the ground of what the land use is,” Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager at the State Water Resources Control Board, told The Desert Sun. “So now we have this ability to just sort of look down from the sky, as it were, and at high resolution see what’s there so that we can essentially come up with a total acreage, a total landscape area.”

Data from those images, together with data on climate and other factors, will help state officials calculate new community-specific conservation targets for the coming years.

The state will analyze the aerial images for things such as hedges, lawns, and other potential areas of water waste. The state’s end goal is a statewide initiative to replace 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscapes.

Gomberg explained that the aerial images will be particularly helpful in assisting state officials as they plan to pair landscape data with climate data and evapotranspiration rates to calculate outdoor water budgets for communities throughout the state. This will help the state develop long-term conservation goals separate from measures that have been put in place to promote short-term water conservation during the ongoing drought.

The state is still in the process of selecting a contractor for the project, but is looking for 3-inch resolution imagery, which will require that the images are captured by a plane. The contractor will eventually be responsible for both capturing the images, as well as using appropriate digital tools to analyze the landscapes and estimate how much water is being used.

While other localities in California have used similar aerial imaging programs, including East Bay Municipal Utility District, Moulton Niguel Water District in Orange County, and the Coachella Valley Water District, this is the first such statewide program.

Kate DeNardi
About Kate DeNardi
Kate DeNardi is 21st Century State & Local's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs
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