SANTA FE, N.M. — Land managers say millions of federal dollars could be put to good use in New Mexico for everything from wildlife management to homeland security if the Legislature is willing to commit matching funds to a national program that aims to create three-dimensional maps of the entire country.
The National 3-D Elevation Program, also known as 3DEP, involves mapping terrain through high-density Light Detection and Ranging, or “lidar,” to create elevation models and generate data sets. The mapping is done from an airplane and measures elevations through 3-D laser scanning.
At an estimated cost of $235 per square mile, it
would cost about $28.6 million to do lidar mapping of all of New Mexico’s 121,736 square miles. An initial projection put out by a planning committee last December called for the state to pay about a quarter of that amount, with federal, tribal and private sources also contributing. But a resolution from the New Mexico Association of Counties is asking the state to pitch in a total of $2.5 million over five years, representing about 9 percent of the cost.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the lead agency for 3DEP, elevation data are essential for such applications as forest resource, wildlife and habitat management; recreation; urban growth planning; economic development, and national security.
In New Mexico, it can be especially useful when applied to floodplain risk management, geographical resource assessment, infrastructure development, construction management, hazard mitigation, agriculture, and natural resource conservation.
The Department of Information Technology oversees the program in New Mexico with the goal of coordinating geospatial technology and data acquisition and sharing it with other government agencies and the public.
Mike Inglis, chairman of a Planning and Acquisition subcommittee of the New Mexico Geospatial Advisory Committee, said there’s a critical need to update pertinent maps and data. Some of what is being used now is decades old.
“One of the difficulties we have is that the tools we use for analysis require better data than we have now; it’s not that we just want a cool topographical map,” Inglis said. “But getting data and infrastructure supported by the Legislature can be hard to do. It can be hard to get them to understand the importance of data collection, but it’s critical.”
Inglis said the University of New Mexico’s Earth Data Analysis Center would serve as the clearinghouse for the information that’s collected. The information would be made available, free of cost, to anyone who wanted it.
Inglis said 3DEP is already in the second year of an eight-year effort to get the mapping done for the entire U.S. and its territories. Some areas in New Mexico, including parts of Santa Fe County, have already been mapped, but funding to match the federal dollars is rarely readily available. New Mexico is a largely rural state and local governments have trouble coming up with money to complete projects, even with matching funds.
“A county or the state doesn’t always have the resources. What this does is create cost share opportunities,” Inglis said.
Partnerships are important for funding
The New Mexico Association of Counties made 3DEP one of its four legislative priorities for next year’s 30-day legislative budget session. It’s asking that the state commit $500,000 per year over the next five years to be used with other federal, local, or tribal funds to match funding from the National 3DEP.
The association’s resolution says New Mexico’s “key geospatial data needs must be met with high-quality, high-resolution, and current elevation data to support asset, resource and water management, wildlife and flood hazard response and mitigation, infrastructure and project planning and development and a multitude of other state and local programs and initiatives.”
Brian Moore, a lobbyist for NMAC, said the association decided to back the 3DEP program because all counties could benefit from it.
“And the thing we liked is it would not just benefit the counties, but the Department of Transportation can use it, the State Engineer can use it – there are lots of uses. And once it gets done, it’s not hard to keep updated,” he added.
Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics, who serves on NMAC’s executive committee, said the proposed state allocation toward the program wouldn’t leave local governments off the hook. “Counties and cities, whoever would want to utilize this, would still have skin in the game because they would need to appropriate whatever resources or personnel are required. It’s not no-local cost,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Santa Fe County Commission unanimously passed its own resolution in support of NMAC’s proposal.
Santa Fe County has already contributed to the effort through the services of Data Integration Administrator Erle Wright, who helped lead the charge for the lidar mapping.
“It’s amazing what you can harvest out of this,” he said. “It would make state money available to partner with local governments, and even the private sector with wind, solar, gas and oil. At the local government level, it will help Public Works folks to figure out areas at risk for flooding, areas in need of infrastructure, and where there’s a danger of that infrastructure being washed out.”
Some lidar mapping has already been done in Santa Fe County, with the county, cities of Santa Fe and Española and the U.S. Geological Survey putting up funds. Santa Fe County paid the bulk of the $1.3 million to map a 3,000-square-mile area that extended beyond the county’s borders.
“We’re in the process of wrapping up a lidar project that captured the entire Galisteo drainage, which goes into San Miguel County and where we have mutual aid in Pecos,” he said, adding that mapping the watershed also went into Rio Arriba County. “You can’t just do part of the watershed. You need to capture the entire watershed to understand what’s going on there.”
Wright said a key to the mapping project is partnerships.
“A lot of times there are budgetary issues, so it’s about pulling resources together. The more who can cooperate and contribute to these projects, the lower the cost is going to be for everyone. The economy of scale is huge,” he said.
Pecking away to get a complete picture
Santa Fe County isn’t the only place lidar mapping has been done within the state. The Upper Hondo Watershed in southern New Mexico, which has been subject to several catastrophic wildfires since the turn of the century, has been mapped, as has the Animas Watershed near Farmington.
Inglis said the data collected in the latter project can be used to mitigate last summer’s Gold King Mine accident in Colorado, which sent a plume of contaminants down the Animas River into New Mexico.
Curry and Roosevelt counties in eastern New Mexico have also been done, with FEMA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service contributing funds.
The NRCS contributed $160,000 to the effort because two of its national initiatives – the lesser prairie-chicken habitat preservation and Ogallala Aquifer conservation and improvement – are affected, said spokesman Rey Adame.
“If you have more updated and accurate information, you can make more scientifically sound decisions,” he said.
Adame said transportation planners love what they can see with lidar mapping. “There’s not a lot of elevation data out there and with it they can see drainages, culverts, roads. It’s amazing data,” he said.
Most of the current elevation data for New Mexico is more than 40 years old and the spatial resolution is off by as much as 33 feet, according to information presented by the advisory committee. Lidar mapping is accurate within 2 feet in elevation and can provide much more precise information pertaining to surface shape, geological features and slope. It can even measure biomass and the thickness of forest canopies, which can be useful in wildfire management in assessing fuel loads.
Inglis said the technology to do the mapping has been around for 20 years or so but was cost-prohibitive.
“In the last 10 years there have been rapid changes and the software has continually improved, so the quality is quite good and costs are reasonable,” he said.
Much of the terrain in the eastern part of the United States has already been mapped.
“In the West, it’s rarer. A county or state doesn’t have the resources to do it on its own. So New Mexico is pecking away and pecking away,” he said.