Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Crowd Sourcing Lake Mapping


Natural Resource Managers and Climatologists have long recognized the critical importance of observer networks and volunteer citizen monitoring.   With citizen monitoring networks, Managers and Scientists acquire useful data for making more informed predictions and management decisions, while involved citizens gain an ownership stake in building the knowledgebase about the condition of ecosystems and the climate.

Citizen protocols for water quality (e.g., Secchi clarity) and meteorology (e.g., rainfall) data collection are largely objective and are becoming increasingly standardized throughout the nation.  As a result, comprehensive datasets are being merged at large geographic scales to assess the current status and trajectory of water resource and climate conditions.  Despite well-intentioned citizen programs to map and monitor aquatic plants in several US states, most are subjective and non-standardized.  Consequently, results will differ across surveyors, systems, and geographic regions.  This strongly limits the power and usefulness of data collected from these programs.   This is unfortunate because of the importance of aquatic plants for fish habitat and water clarity, and the vulnerability of lakes to invasive aquatic plants.

Contour Innovations has addressed this issue with ciBioBase and is poised to revolutionize citizen aquatic plant monitoring.

Objective data collection and analysis

Few others cover more water than citizens living on lakes.  Why not capture information about bottom conditions while on a pleasure cruise or fishing?  With only a modicum of planning, the lake could be divvied up among users to ensure consistent and uniform coverage.  By loading in a $10 SD card into the slot on a Lowrance HDS unit and hitting record while driving over areas of interest, lake citizens are well on their way to collecting important information on aquatic plant growth.  After a trip, citizens upload the recorded files to ciBioBase’s cloud-based servers which will trigger algorithms to automatically analyze bottom and plant signals, map the output and match it up with your sonar viewer (Figure 1).  Pretty maps? Absolutely! But also, objective statistical reports that summarize the plant growth conditions (e.g., percent cover, biovolume; Figure 2).  By sampling the same area over time, citizens can objectively monitor change as environmental conditions change.  Further, these efforts will provide objective benchmarks by which to evaluate watershed, shoreline, and in-lake management efforts. 

Figure 1. Automated mapping of bottom and vegetation signals matched up a high resolution DownScan sonar trip replay. 
Figure 2. Excerpt from ciBioBase automated statistical summary report.

Data that most closely corresponds to water quality, fish habitat, and nuisance conditions

Prior to ciBioBase, lake citizens, service providers, and natural resource agencies had little choice but to express plant growth in the lake as “abundant” or “sparse” with sophistication ranging up to digitally drawn maps around the outside of plant beds that they could see from looking over the side of the boat or from an aerial photo.  Anything that could not be seen with the naked eye or from an aerial photograph was ignored.  Quantification was limited to what could be pulled up with a rake and expressed as a presence/absence  metric of frequency of occurrence.

From a water quality and fish habitat perspective, these methods have left the fishery and water resource manager, lakeshore owner, and angler wanting.  Traditional plant assessment methods as described would give the same value to the strikingly contrasting environments depicted in Figure 3).  In the panel on the left, plants only occupy approximately 60% of the water column.  There are adequate hiding places for prey and room for predators to swim around in search of prey.  Plants are adequate to anchor sediments and prevent stirring of sediments that can make the lake murky.  Last but not least, a boat can easily pass through without disturbing the habitat.  Contrast this with the panel on the right.  Although the visual delineation or rake throw prescribed by traditionalists would give the same information on density as the panel on the left, fish habitat and water recreation conditions are strikingly different between the two environments.  In this simulated invasive aquatic plant community (e.g., Eurasian watermilfoil or Hydrilla) without any edge, predatory fish have difficulty finding prey, boat propellers are stopped in their tracks and outboard impellers imperiled!  Essentially, the differences described between the environments in Figure 3 can be summarized in the ciBioBase biovolume maps and statistical outputs.  Ask your service provider or local water resource manager how they measure aquatic plant growth conditions in your favorite lake and evaluate whether they stack up to what ciBioBase provides.

Figure 3.  Contrasting aquatic plant environments that are often represented equally in traditional assessment methods.  On the left is growth that typifies a diverse, native aquatic plant community as opposed to topped-out growth that typifies invasive plant communities.  By mapping biovolume (percent of water column occupied by vegetaton), ciBioBase distinguishes the differences between these plant communities.
Centralized database – Apples to Apples

All data uploaded to ciBioBase are processed uniformly in a centralized database and made available to subscribers in a private organizational account.  Data from Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota can be compared with data from East Lake Tohopekaliga in Florida or data from Esthwaite Water in the UK and comparisons will be apples to apples.  The centralization feature of ciBioBase comes with these tangible benefits as well as intangible ones like fostering greater collaboration between groups interested in aquatic resource conservation.

Merged uniform outputs from multiple surveyors

A new buzzword has been entering the vernacular of natural resource managers called “precision conservation” brought on by advances in aerial photography, lasers (LiDAR), automated sensors, and greater computing power.  We can now identify miniscule areas on the landscape that are sources of runoff and pollution and strategically target those areas to install “Best Management Practices” or BMP’s like rain gardens or grit chambers.  However, thus far the dialog surrounding precision conservation has largely been terrestrial.  ciBioBase is bringing precision conservation to lakes through its merge trips function (Figure 4).

As ciBioBase account managers our users can compile trips from subscribers within their  organization to create a highly precise map of bottom and vegetation (Figure 4).  This division of labor describes the essence of this blog’s title whereby the collective efforts or intelligence of the many are more powerful than any one individual.  No one person is willing or able to track how the lake is changing from day to day as runoff from an increasingly common 4-in rain comes streaming (literally) in, but a dozen active citizens might.  The result is a near real-time data feed on changes in lake conditions that will greatly inform how the lake responds to environmental change, where to target conservation efforts, and whether implemented management policies are producing their desired effects.
Figure 4. Multiple citizens in the same organization can work together by merging trips, thereby creating the most accurate bottom and plant map on the face of the planet!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Aquatic Plant Abundance Mapping and Resilience!

Merriam-Webster Defines resilience as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.  Eminent University of Wisconsin-Madison Ecologist Dr. Steve Carpenter further adds that resilience is the ability for a system to withstand a “shock” without losing its basic functions, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msiIV5NdLVs

Resilience is a relatively easy concept to understand, but it can be difficult to measure in lakes without monitoring subtle changes over time.  This stresses the importance of long-term monitoring and being on guard for new changes to water quality, aquatic plants, and fish.  Volunteer networks and agencies across the country are making great strides in monitoring water quality by dropping a disk in the water and scooping up some water and sending it to a lab for analysis.  In essence, taking the lake's "blood" sample.  Indeed, water quality samples can be very telling.  But what is happening to the rest of the lake "body"?  How is it changing in relation to its liquid diet of runoff or medication to treat invasive species?  Unfortunately, until now, natural resource agencies, lake managers, and volunteers have not had the capabilities to objectively and efficiently assess these changes without time-intensive, coarse surveys of vegetation cover.

Your body’s immune system is the engine of resilience.  When your immune system becomes compromised, you become vulnerable to a wide range of ailments that may not be a threat to someone with a healthy immune system.  The same goes for lakes.  In the glaciated region of the Upper Midwestern US and Canada, healthy lakes are those that have intact watersheds where the hydrologic cycle is in balance.  Without going into great depth, keeping water where it falls (or at least slowing it down), goes a long way in keeping the hydrologic cycle in balance.  Healthy glacial lakes also have clear water, a diverse assemblage of native aquatic plants, and balanced fish communities.  When humans or the environment alter any one of these components, the lake must adjust in order to compensate for those alterations and remain in a healthy state.  The ability of the lake to do so is this concept of resilience (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  Conceptual diagram of a resilient system.  The height of the slope and the deepness of the valley are the compensatory mechanisms that bring a lake back to some resilient baseline condition after a short-term "shock" like a flood or a temporary septic failure.  Lakes with forested watersheds, clear water, native aquatic plants, and balanced fish communities are typically in this condition.

Slowly, as more curb and gutter goes in, green lawns replace native grasses, personal swimming beaches replace marshes, fish are overharvested or overstocked, or invasive species are introduced, the lake slowly loses its ability to compensate (Figure 2).  All of a sudden you hear “I’ve never seen that before” become more common when people describe a phenomenon on the lake that well, they’ve never seen before.   You may start to observe more algae blooms, more attached algae on rocks and plants, plants growing where they’ve never grown before, invasive species taking hold and thriving.  This is an example of the lake losing resilience and succumbing to the vagaries of the environment.  Under these circumstances, the lake can’t compensate anymore and you never know what you will see from year to year.  With no baseline, objective assessment of aquatic plant abundance and no monitoring of change in abundance and cover from year to year, it makes it even harder to know how much the lake has actually changed and what you need to try to get back to with implemented best management practices .

Figure 2.  An example of the consequences of the cumulative impacts of environmental and human stressors on lake resilience.  As lakes become more impacted by various watershed and in lake practices and invasive species, resilience is slowly worn away.  The valley becomes more shallow and a new "domain" enters the picture.  Lake conditions slosh around from one state to the next depending on the vagaries of weather and other disturbances.  Not knowing to expect from one year to the next becomes the norm.

A demonstration of the difference between a resilient lake and one that is losing resilience can be found in a paper published by Valley and Drake in Aquatic Botany in 2007 entitled “What does resilience of a clear-water state in lakes mean for the spatial heterogeneity of submersed macrophyte biovolume?”  Valley and Drake found very consistent patterns of vegetation growth from one sampling period to the next over three years in a clear lake (Square Lake, Washington Co. MN USA; Figure 3).  Each survey in Figure 3 took two days to survey and another week to make these plots.  Not including time on the water, ciBioBase produces these same plots in an hour.
 
Figure 3.  Submerged aquatic plant biovolume (% of water column inhabited by plants) as a function of depth in Square Lake, Washington Co., MN USA.  Notice the consistency of the pattern of vegetation growth from one time period to the next (study took place for 3 years from 2002-2004; Valley and Drake 2007).  Water clarity in Square Lake is high with diverse aquatic plants.
In contrast, patterns of vegetation growth were quite variable in a moderately turbid lake with abundant Eurasian watermilfoil; West Auburn Lake, Carver Co. MN USA; Figure 4).  For example, in summer 2003, a bloom of attached algae formed on Eurasian watermilfoil stems and effectively weighed down the stems and prevented them from reaching the surface.  This bloom was unique to 2003 and was not observed at any other time during the study.

Figure 4.  Plant growth as a function of depth in a moderately turbid Minnesota Lake with abundant Eurasian watermilfoil (West Auburn Lake, Carver Co. MN USA; Valley and Drake 2007).  Plants grew shallower and more variable in this more disturbed lake. 

If stressors continue unabated, then the lake can “tip” into a new, highly resilient domain of poor health (Figure 5).  The feedback mechanisms that used to keep the lake in a healthy state have now switched to new feedback mechanisms that are keeping it in an unhealthy state.  Algae begets more algae, carp beget more carp, stunted bluegill beget more stunted bluegill, if invasive plants are lucky enough to grow, they beget more invasive plants.  Getting the lake back to the original state is nearly impossible at this point.  It’s like Sisyphus rolling the rock uphill only to have it roll right back down again!  Although controversial, at some point, citizens, regulators, and lake managers need to start rethinking expectations and adapting management approaches in highly degraded systems.  Rather than trying to restore a lake to a Pre-European settlement condition through expensive, risky, and Draconian measures, it may be more reasonable to ask: “How can we have good enough water quality to support naturally reproducing stocks of game fish?”  “Can we manage invasive plants in a way that maintains fish habitat AND recreational opportunities?”  After the wailing and gnashing of teeth subsides and some agreement is reached on objectives and management strategies, then it becomes essential to determine whether implemented management practices are having their desired effect.  It doesn't take two weeks and $10's of thousands of dollars to do a vegetation survey.  Volunteers can do it, lake consultants can do it, state agencies can do it and they'll all do it the same objective way with ciBioBase and they can all work together!


Figure 5.  Example of a lake that has flipped into a degraded regime regulated by new feedback mechanisms that keep it in the degraded state. 

The Upshot

Resilience is an easy concept to understand on a basic level, but hard to measure in lakes and changes slowly over time.  This stresses the importance of long-term monitoring and being on guard for those things “you’ve never seen before.”  Uploading data to ciBioBase every time you are on the water gives an objective and quantitative snapshot of the current conditions in your lake of interest.  Be watchful for anomalies in monitored areas.  Vegetation growth should follow a relatively predictable pattern from year to year and if it doesn’t, that may be the first indication that the lake is losing resilience and precautionary conservation measures should be taken.  Conservation measures may include better onsite storm water infiltration (e.g., rain gardens, nearshore vegetation buffers), maintaining a modest amount of aquatic plant growth in the lake, maintaining a balanced fish community in terms of species, size, and abundance.  These efforts will go a long way in protecting the long-term integrity of our beloved lakes!

Suggested Readings:

Carpenter, S.R., 2003. Regime shifts in lake ecosystems: pattern and variation. In: Excellence in Ecology, vol. 15, Ecology Institute Oldendorf/Luhe, Germany.

Scheffer, M., 1998. Ecology of Shallow Lakes. Chapman and Hall, London.

Valley, R.D. and M.T. Drake 2007.  What does resilience of a clear-water state in lakes mean for the spatial heterogeneity of submersed macrophyte biovolume? Aquatic Botany 87: 307-319.




Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Contour Innovations Welcomes Jesse Amo

Contour Innovations, LLC is proud to announce the addition of Jesse Amo to the position of Aquatic Biologist and Technical Sales.  Jesse will focus his efforts on sales, education and in-person demos for local government units and lake associations.  "Jesse's enthusiasm, passion and wealth of knowledge in aquatic habitats make him a great steward for executing Contour Innovations vision of changing the way we assess aquatic environments using cloud computing and acoustics" commented Ray Valley, Contour Innovations' Chief Aquatic Biologist.



Jesse brings a diverse mix of education and experience to the Contour Innovations team.  Jesse holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Zoology (fish and wildlife emphasis) from North Dakota State University with particular interest in aquatic ecosystems.   He is currently pursuing a graduate certificate in Geographic Information Science and Cartography from the University of North Dakota’s online program.   He draws on experience gathered while working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, National Park Service, US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Minnesota lake associations, Minnesota Soil and Water Conservation Districts and various academic research programs.  He is also active in the Minnesota Association of Conservation Professionals and the American Fisheries Society.

In addition to his work in aquatic biology, Jesse  served 6 years in the Army National Guard and quickly adapted to several military occupational specialties.  He is a combat veteran who served a 12 month tour of duty in Iraq in 2004-2005.  His personal interests include many outdoor endeavors such as canoeing, fishing, hiking, cycling, and research and observation of ecosystems.  Jesse is driven to find innovative ways in increase our understanding and management of aquatic ecosystems.



Jesse's motivation and understanding of aquatic systems made him a great addition to our rapidly growing team.  We're excited to have him on board!

You can contact Jesse at JesseA@ContourInnovations.com