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WVU Researchers Advance Aquatic Physical Habitat Monitoring with Drones

Researchers at West Virginia University are developing cutting-edge research methods using drone technology that could revolutionize the way resource managers monitor human land-use impacts on stream ecosystems.

TOP: Dr. Paul Kinder, a research scientist with the WVU Natural Resource Analysis Center, prepares to capture aerial images and video within the West Run Watershed using an unmanned aerial vehicle. BOTTOM: Dr. Jason Hubbart, director of the WVU Institute of Water Security and Science, provides a tour of and background about the location of a UAV hydrogeomorphology study within the West Run Watershed in Morgantown, WV.

Jason Hubbart, director of the Institute of Water Security and Science and professor of hydrology and water quality in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and Paul Kinder, director of the Natural Resource Analysis Center, are using the technology to quantify stream physical habitat and bank erosion within the West Run Watershed in Monongalia County.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – are gaining in popularity as a means to assist with natural resource and environmental systems management,” Hubbart said. “Traditional methods of field data collection, processing and analysis are labor intensive and expensive. UAV technologies offer tremendous potential to increase efficiencies and improve decision-making related to managing these resources.”

According to Hubbart, conducting physical habitat assessments is so costly and labor intensive that seldom are the data collected, and if they are, only once.

“It takes great effort and investment in equipment to hike an entire stream system and collect comprehensive physical data at short distances,” he said. “This research changes all of that.”

Drone technology allows a single person to collect continuous data and the work can be easily repeated.

“That latter point is very important,” Hubbart said. “Seldom is there a series of physical habitat assessment data collected over time from a given stream or river. With this technology, we can repeat as often as we like to quantitatively characterize how much the structure and function of a given stream changes over time.”

The West Run Watershed encompasses 22-square kilometers and is a tributary of the Upper Monongahela River. According to Hubbart, recent assessments indicate the watershed is representative mixed-land-use with forest, agriculture and urban, making it well-suited for this research.

“The watershed is one of the most rapidly developing areas of Monongalia County and West Virginia with increasing urbanization, agricultural, industrial, and mining land uses,” Hubbart said. “All of which have variously contributed to land and water resource degradation.”

Flooding has also become more prevalent in the watershed due to ongoing development activities often resulting in increased runoff and alteration of runoff timing. With these increases, the stream channel migrates to accommodate the additional flow, increasing streambank erosion and potentially resulting in channel realignment.

“Degradation of streambanks and the migration or realignment of water channels can severely impact watersheds through loss of valuable land, exacerbated flooding, increased sediments in downstream environments, water quality degradation, loss of fish habitat and thermal refuges, and greatly reduced recreational use,” he added.

In addition to increased flooding, the watershed is also subject to water borne pollution including acid mine drainage, fecal coliform – indicating it has been contaminated with human or animal fecal material - and suspended sediment. Since 2014, the stream has consistently appeared on the West Virginia’s 303(d) list – a section of the Clean Water Act identifying impaired bodies of water - due to biological impairment.

Although researchers have access to data previously gathered through physical habitat assessments, Kinr noted there are still questions to be answered.

“Is the stream functioning properly – or is it in a state of instability,” Kinder said. “Ecologically speaking, is it supporting life in the diversity and quantity one would expect? How does its form and function compare to a stable and healthy system?”

That’s where drones come into the picture. Kinder will utilize the technology to capture low-altitude aerial images and video in and around streambanks within targeted areas of the watershed.

“The imagery will be used to create digital surface models that will be measured and compared with physical habitat assessments including streambank measurements to develop and validate the method,” he said.

“Physical habitat assessment data is invaluable to resource managers but it’s not feasible to collect frequently because of the time and cost involved,” Hubbart added. “The use of drone technologies to collect physical habitat data will provide an easily repeatable method that will help resource managers determine the health of specific bodies of water, and thus make timely decisions about restoration and rehabilitation efforts to ensure the health of the stream and its inhabitants.”

More information about the use of drone technologies for rapid stream physical habitat assessments (rPHA) can be found in a recently-published journal article by Hubbart, Kinder, Dr. Elliott Kellner and Dr. Kirsten Stephan. The article, “Challenges in Aquatic Physical Habitat Assessment: Improving Conservation and Restoration Decisions for Contemporary Watersheds,” helps draw attention to rPHA challenges and research needs including, but not limited to, field-based validation and optimization of new remote sensing technologies, evaluation of the accuracy and representativeness of rapid vegetation survey methods, refinement of analytical methods, and consideration of legacy land use impacts and hydrologic system evolution in rPHA results interpretation.

This research was partially supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number OIA-1458952, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and West Virginia University.