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Sensor, Drone Research Will Paint a More Accurate Picture of California’s Water

A sizable research grant is behind a University of California Natural Reserve System effort to monitor the state’s most precious resource.

The University of California Natural Reserve System has received a more than $2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to monitor water moving through wild areas of the California landscape and its resultant effect on plant life. Called the California Heartbeat Initiative, a team of scientists will monitor 10 native reserves across the state with drones and sensors placed to track climate change.
Like any state, water is key to California's burgeoning population and its $47 billion agriculture industry, and extended droughts are a threat to society and industry. Researchers will follow wild streams and their tributaries across the state's wildlands and look at the forest's humidity content, coastal soil moisture and vegetation transpiration across the state.
By coupling plant physiology, plant chemistry and hydrology, said Todd Dawson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley departments of Integrative Biology, and Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, “scientists will also study the role plants play in water variation.”
The initiative will examine how water flows through ten sites in a variety of environments from northern forests and coastal mountains and to the deserts of the south. 
Such diverse areas demand a large workforce to monitor water resources and a changing climate. “There is a core group of seven on the funded project,” said Dawson. Altogether, the UC Reserves system includes “40 reserves sprinkled through the state.” Each of the test sites has a resident manager and “the study may well involve some 40 people,” he said.
Most climate and water research looks at large rivers, which may have only one weather station that provides data from one spot on the landscape. Dawson says this initiative will allow scientists to look at a lot more area. “There will be multiple weather stations depending on the terrain,” he said.
Powered by a battery and solar panel, each sensor is the size of a thermos and will take continuous measurements of temperature, humidity, solar radiation, soil moisture and barometric pressure.
In addition to the climate data, the project includes drones that paired with a multispectral camera that can detect red, green, blue and near-infrared light wavelengths reflected off the plant life.
“We will be able to monitor vegetation to determine whether the plant life is thirsty and how much water it is using in photosynthesis,” he said.
According to Dawson, the drone data can be collected daily by flying the same pattern across the wild area and shooting photos and then stitching the resulting images into three dimensions.
"These are new ways of detecting change," he said. "We are able to collect data at a much higher resolution because of the tools we are using."
And he emphasizes most of the tools in use on this project are readily available and off-the-shelf. The drone data is also standardized and software to allow scientists to stitch the vegetation data comes in a common package as well.
Because the data is housed in the cloud and all sites will be networked together, 3-D maps will allow the team of researchers to ask and answer questions across the whole of the California sites and answer environmental issues over time.
“We now have a way to quantify variation,” he said.
Researchers will compare data across the ten site and will be able to look back at historical data to identify trends that might have gone missed in less comprehensive studies. 
Ultimately the initiative will allow the group to build a standard set of tools to look at water and climate for others to use. “One piece of the larger project, Dawson said, is to build a toolkit that could be handed to anyone to use on their land whether they represent urban or agricultural areas.
Elizabeth Zima is a former staff writer for Government Technology. She has written in depth on topics including health care, clinical science, physician relations and hospital communications.