– A panel of Colorado state and local government officials here said greater federal investment in remote sensing capabilities is needed to assist local agencies in areas such as wildfire fighting, urban planning and natural resource monitoring.
Speaking April 7 at a field hearing of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, these officials said many of the issues they deal with on a daily basis are not limited to their jurisdictions but often affect the entire western United States, thus making them partially the responsibility of the federal government. The hearing was presided over by the subcommittee’s chairman and ranking member, Reps. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), respectively.
Jack Byers, deputy director and deputy state engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said Colorado and many other western states have a critical need for high-resolution thermal infrared imagery. Colorado and other states are actively integrating remote sensing techniques into their water management strategies to estimate agricultural water use, classify land cover by vegetation, schedule irrigation diversions and estimate aquifer depletion. Most importantly, this type of capability is essential for climate change initiatives, he said. Water management of the Colorado River is of great concern to much of the country’s West, as its basin extends to Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California.
Byers expressed concern that the current sources of this thermal infrared data, NASA’s Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 satellites, are beyond their design lives, and a failure would leave a gap in capability. Further, the next satellite in the series, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission scheduled to launch in 2011, does not have a thermal infrared sensor band, he noted. Byers said adding that band would not significantly affect the satellite’s launch date.
“Water here in the West is so valuable and so critical to life,” Byers said. “When I work with [Colorado’s Native American] tribes, they say water is life. That’s why it’s so important to us in the West to see all of the information that we can and manage our water resources collectively in the best way possible.”
Simon Montagu, a director of the Denver Regional Council of Governments, chimed in on the importance of remote sensing information for the Denver metropolitan area. This area has been growing for more than a decade, currently adding about 20,000 new residents each year, Montagu said. More aerial photography is the most pressing need for urban planners in Denver, he said.
“The overall growth of the area and the long-term infrastructure that will be needed to support it require that we have some sort of sense of what is happening,” Montagu said. “And hopefully it will be able to help us direct that growth in the way that best utilizes that infrastructure. Knowing what is happening in terms of change detection, being able to look back and forth in time, is important.”
Lidar, a radar-like remote sensing technology that uses light instead of radio waves, also is being employed in Denver. The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is using the technique as it assists with security planning for the Democratic National Convention that will be held in Denver in August.
said lidar and other technologies have come so far, and now it is just a matter of using them in the most effective way.
“We’ve now reached the stage of maturity where we have a significant amount of data at our disposal, and it’s become a matter of getting that data into the hands of people who need it,” Montagu said.
He said federal organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Geological Survey have taken leadership roles in pushing this type of information out onto the Internet. This has been helpful to small organizations like the Denver Regional Council of Governments, which in many cases are ill-equipped to handle remote sensing data in more traditional formats. Montagu called on Congress to fund these types of initiatives at even higher levels. He also asked that county and municipal governments be allowed to tap into the established federal government contracting vehicles for purchasing commercial imagery.
Manuel Navarro, fire chief of Colorado Springs, brought a perspective based on more than four decades on the front lines of wildfire fighting. Navarro recounted how far technology has come just since the early 1990s, when he was fighting fires in California using hand-drawn maps sketched by firefighters flying in helicopters.
“We’ve been able to use technology to get some good maps now,” he said. “When we’re able to get good maps, we can leverage that information into situational awareness. I will tell you, on the ground today, most wildfire fighters have to lay a map out in front of them and guess what’s happening. They don’t have real-time analysis.”
Navarro said recent use of data gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles already has saved lives in Colorado. But the response side of firefighting is only half the benefit; remote sensing technologies can be equally valuable on the mitigation side, enabling fire departments to conduct the best possible risk analyses. Colorado Springs has been given a U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to study the potential for reducing the chances that a wildfire will start, Navarro said, but grants are no substitute for consistent federal funding.
“In general, local governments are really strapped to leverage this technology. When I talk to my staff, they say ‘we don’t have the manpower and we don’t have the resources.'”