Everglades restoration starts vegetation mapping

Officials from the South Florida Water Management District have awarded a $1.5 million contract to an Alexandria, Va.-based information technology company to create a detailed digital map of vegetation habitats in the Everglades.

In the next five years, representatives from Avineon will document and identify the species and distribution of vegetation on aerial digital photographs as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a long-term multibillion-dollar initiative to restore the health of the wetlands in south Florida.

Avineon’s project will cover about 2,817 square miles, which is an area larger than the state of Delaware. A team from the water management district is also creating a vegetation map of the remaining area of the Everglades area using the same methodologies.

Keith Patterson, Avineon’s director of photogrammetry, mapping and geographic information systems, said the project is intended to create a baseline map of the vegetation in the Everglades so officials can measure and track the ecosystem’s restoration in the future.

“There’s a great need to manage environmental assets, and unless you know what vegetation exists within the area you can’t start managing it,” he said.

Photointerpreters will identify the vegetation on aerial photographs, which were taken about 18 months ago, and will likely have to make site visits in helicopters to document vegetation types, Patterson said. Photogrammetry is a technique that allows photointerpreters to view an image three-dimensionally so they can differentiate the height of trees and other characteristics of the vegetation in the aerial photographs, he said.

The vegetation maps will be used to make management decisions about the restoration efforts.

“Resource managers can tie the mapping data with water quality and flooding data to identify the best management practices for the area," Patterson said.

Governments are using vegetation mapping more frequently because although the technology has gotten better, the process has also become less expensive, he said. The entire mapping process from image capture to identification can also be done digitally.

"Not too many years ago, mapping was accomplished using pen and ink rather than the digital methods used today," Patterson said.

In 2000, Congress authorized CERP, which is considered the largest environmental restoration project ever undertaken in the United States, at a cost of about $10.5 billion over 30 years. The initiative is designed to enhance the Everglades ecosystem in a 16-county region in south Florida by capturing and storing the 1.7 billion gallons of water per day that is currently lost to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

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